About 500 union workers and supporters gathered outside the British consulate in West Los Angeles last Friday to protest the ongoing lockout of Rio Tinto Borax miners in the Mojave Desert town of Boron.
Amplified chants of "End the Lockout Now!" made their pleas audible from blocks away, even over the mid-day city traffic.
The protesters rallied to gain public support and to bring their cause to the door of the British government. Rio Tinto is a U.K.-based company.
Hundreds of miners have been locked out
since the morning of Jan. 31 when they showed up for their regular shifts and were told to go home. This was after months of fruitless contract talks between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Rio Tinto. Each side has blamed the other for failure to reach an agreement. The union refused to sign the new contract which they claimed would degrade what have been traditionally high paid blue-collar jobs with excellent benefits.
Since the lockout began 11 weeks ago, negotiations between the union and company have been virtually non-existent. Last week both parties met again for the first time, but only under orders from a federal mediator.
Union spokesperson, Craig Merrilees, said the main impediment to an agreement is the continuing lockout, which he said is devastating the town of Boron. The remote settlement about 90 minutes northeast of Los Angeles is nearly wholly dependent on the mining operation. Multiple generations of workers have roughed the remote living conditions in exchange for well-compensated jobs.
"This company has not shown any willingness to stop this outrageous lockout that is hurting so many families, communities and businesses," said Merrilees. "So until they do that, it's hard to imagine how serious the company is about negotiating a fair settlement."
Merrilees emphasized that Rio Tinto is currently being investigated by the federal government for possible labor law violations. One alleged violation is the lockout itself.
"The company had no business trying to force these things on families," said Merrilees. "And the fact that the federal government is investigating Rio Tinto... is the biggest reason that Rio Tinto is adjusting their position at the negotiating table."
Merrilees declined to comment further about what took place during the negotiations.
"Rio Tinto has devastated us... and basically put a gun to our heads," said protester Bruce Wade, a chief operator at the Borax mine for 11 years before he was locked out.
The union calls the lockout a "starvation tactic."
Rio Tinto counters that the union was unwilling to negotiate in good faith from the onset
"Prior to the lockout, we got union representatives to agree to come to the bargaining table two times per week, max," said Susan Keefe, a Rio Tinto spokesperson. "Because we couldn't get anywhere in negotiating the contract, and we couldn't get the union to agree to extend the current contract, which would have protected us from a strike... and a lockout, we followed through with what we said we would do -- to lock employees out on January 31."
Keefe also condemned the union for trying to go around the company and use community and and consumer pressure as a bargaining tactic.
"Union members were reaching out to our customers and causing them some concern about supply reliability," said Keefe. "The very reason we imposed the lockout was to protect the company."
Keefe denied the company's intent is to force the union workers into signing the contract through desperation and unemployment.
"We really feel bad about how this is affecting our workforce," said Keefe.
For now, the negotiations seem to have little forward movement.
Beyond the bitter and unresolved battle in Boron, the company has recently suffered a major blow to its corporate image. Earlier this month, a Chinese court sentenced a Rio Tinto executive to a decade in prison for his role in a bribery scandal.