Union Victory in California Desert -- Workers Beat Back Most of Rio Tinto's Demands

Workers agree to a tentative deal to end a 15-week lockout against the world's 4th-largest mining company.

Miners in Boron, California, vote Saturday on a tentative agreement to end their 15-week lockout. The Longshore and Warehouse Union says the pact beats back most of the demands made by Rio Tinto, the world’s fourth-largest mining company.

Rio Tinto had demanded the right to convert full-time jobs to part-time, gut seniority, cut pay at any time, and outsource. The six-year agreement calls for annual 2.5 percent wage increases but takes a step backward on pensions: new hires will receive 401(k)s.

Workers credited the victory to the outpouring of support both from their own small town in the High Desert of Southern California and from Los Angeles, 125 miles away, as well as throughout the ILWU.

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The Boron miners received a Troublemakers Award at the April 23-25 Labor Notes Conference, which honors some of the most outstanding (and often unsung) grassroots activists in the labor movement.

“The biggest lesson we learned,” said instrumentation electrician Mike Davenport, “is that it’s not enough to be union for one day, to get the contract. You’ve got to reach out to others who’ve supported you. People were driving 100+ miles to support us; we have to do the same.”

Four factors contributed to the win:

  • community and labor movement support. Tons of food were delivered from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and others. The ILWU had doctors volunteer for a free clinic. The local credit union—the only financial institution in Boron—let workers slide for three months on house and car notes, said rank and filer Kevin Martz.

  • the union’s pressure, with allies, on Rio Tinto around the world. Protesters dogged company executives from Boston to London to Australia.

  • poor production by scabs. “They admitted less than a month ago they were on their third group of scabs,” said Martz. Much of the workforce is highly skilled and familiar with the operation, coming from generations of mining families.

  • political pressure that stopped a federal handout of tribal lands in Arizona to Rio Tinto for copper mining.

Rio Tinto spent thousands of dollars trying to convince the people of Boron that their neighbors were backward and greedy, but the company’s ads didn’t resonate. The ILWU was able to show that this was a David v. Goliath struggle of workers and families against a multinational conglomerate seeking to starve workers into submission to a workplace without rights.

“Rio Tinto has gotten a lot of negative press and they want to reverse their public image,” Martz said.

Said rank-and-filer Kim Evans, “When we first got locked out I thought there was no way in heck we would win this. But we had so many people that showed up out here. I grew up out here, but for other people it’s a shock—a little tiny desert town that looks like it would blow away… The Teamsters brought us $30,000 worth of groceries and then another $20,000, so we had a food bank.”

Martz praised supporters for help in paying COBRAs, utilities, mortgages, and car payments, and noted the tremendous support from the community.

“When people view your struggle as righteous,” added ILWU organizing director Peter Olney, “it’s a lot easier.”

Jane Slaughter is a staff writer with Labor Notes.