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Labor Showdown in the California Desert -- Mineworkers Stand-up to Multinational Rio Tinto

The multinational mining giant Rio Tinto has uprooted unions, slashed wages and abused employees all over the world. Now workers at its California facility are fighting a lockout.

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Cash flow from other mineral products, including borates, and surges in mine share prices have been bolstered by a huge influx of investment from pension funds and other institutional investors--probably a speculative bubble in the making.

Then, in a staggering move, Rio Tinto betrayed its Chinese suitors and eloped with BHP. Their love child is a joint-production venture--in essence, a partial merger--that consolidates their huge iron ore operations in Australia, giving them unprecedented price-setting power over the world's most important metal.

Indeed, both Tom Albanese, Rio Tinto's CEO, and Marius Kloppers, his counterpart at BHP, recently warned major customers that annual price benchmarks will become a thing of the past, as the mining combination adjusts pricing to the volatile spot market. China, in particular, could see its steel and manufacturing costs rise by billions.

Beijing's immediate, furious response was to arrest Rio Tinto's top four executives in Shanghai for "espionage" (the charges were later reduced to bribery). Chinese officials talk darkly about the Rio Tinto/BHP "monopoly," although undoubtedly they would prefer to own part of it rather than actually dismantle it.

VI

The future of a small town in the Mojave is thus entangled in geoeconomic competitions far larger and more important than the borate market itself. So what chance do 560 miners and their families have in a fight with Godzilla?

The record of the past twenty years is not encouraging. With some heroic exceptions--the 1989-90 Pittston coal strike in Virginia, the 1990s Frontier Casinos strike in Las Vegas and a few others--international unions have seldom been willing to support a local fight to the last bullet or bitter dime.

But ILWU has a unique street credibility. The pit bull of CIO-generation unions, it bit into the heels of the West Coast stevedoring industry in 1934 and never let go. Industrial unions are supposed to be dying, but the ILWU, despite its modest size, punches hard enough to keep the powerful Pacific Maritime Association sulking in its corner, while ensuring that the docks remain safe and well paid.

As the only union that survived McCarthyism with its left-wing leadership (under Harry Bridges) intact, the ILWU is also legendary for putting muscle behind the slogan of "working-class solidarity." Since the 1960s it has conducted scores of job actions and walkouts in support of striking Australian dockers, California farmworkers and South African freedom fighters. Indeed, in May 2008 the union shut down the West Coast for a day to protest the war in Iraq.

In anticipation of the Boron lockout, ILWU had persuaded members of an international coalition of mining and maritime unions--many of whom have done battle with Rio Tinto--to hold their periodic conference in the nearby desert city of Palmdale. On February 16 the delegates, along with rank and file from other ILWU locals, arrive in Boron for a march to the mine followed by a big Local 30 barbecue.

The overture to the protest is the earthshaking full-throttle roar of shovelhead and twin-cam Harley-Davidson engines. The stevedore-bikers of Local 13 (LA Harbor) emerge out of the desert haze like Marlon Brando's leather-clad horde in The Wild One (or, better, the Comanches in Blood Meridian ).

Someone, awe-struck, whispers, "Glad these guys are on our side." Later I count twenty-six Harley black beauties corralled in a reverential semicircle on the street side of the union hall. (The unfortunate owners of rice-burners and pasta rockets have had to remove their imported Japanese and Italian bikes to a discreet distance.)

Carloads of out-of-town ILWU members arrive, then two buses carrying dozens of US and foreign labor leaders. The crowd applauds, people shake hands, someone turns up the volume on "Born in the USA" and the marchers begin to assemble, about 600-strong, behind a banner that spans the entire width of the road: An Injury to One Is an Injury to All .

 
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