Rio Tinto Lockout Rocks the Town of Boron

Kayla Martz is a stay-at-home mother of three who had to go back to work in temporary administrative positions because her husband, Tyler, has been locked out of his mining job at Rio Tinto Borax for eight weeks.

She joined a march earlier this month as part of a solidarity showing with her husband and kids and hundreds of other mining families. They traveled the short distance up Borax road from the union headquarters to the front gates of the mine to protest the lockout.

Protesters walked the mile fairly quietly. A low hum emanated from conversations in their crowd of several hundred.

It was what could be considered a family affair. Kids carried mini American flags and bounced around exuberantly near the reach of their parents. Husbands and wives held hands. People walked their dogs and pushed their babies in strollers.

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Marchers wore blue t-shirts with the slogan of their union and produced signs that read, "We support locked-out families," and "Part time America won't work."

It didn't become loud until the mass of marchers reached the front gates of the mine. They began chanting slogans like, "We want to work," in unison, with even the kids joining in.

Kayla told me after the march that the transition has been tough on their family. For one, she is nursing their six-month old daughter, Serena, a blue-eyed baby girl, and she isn't home to feed the baby. Also, the family is dipping into their savings, and they are having to stretch Kayla's income further than is comfortable since she is bringing home much less than what Tyler was making as a union employee at the mine.

This is the kind of story being told over and over in Boron, California, a mining town of about 2,000 residents. 600 of them worked at the Borax mine, responsible for producing 20-Mule Team Borax laundry soap, until the morning of January 31 when their employer Rio Tinto locked them out.

Boron isn't home to just any borax mine. In fact, this mine is said to be the largest open-pit mine in the world. It's also the second largest borax concentration in the world and supplies 42% of the world's borates.

For the past 100 years, residents of Boron have either worked at the mine or have family who worked at the mine; or they own a small business that caters to the mineworkers. Their mine is the mainstay of the local economy, so they are inherently linked to its prosperity.

After five months of a stand-off in contract negotiation between Rio Tinto and the local mining union, Rio Tinto was fed up with the union not agreeing to their new contract concessions and the company decided to simply lock out the workforce to avoid them striking first.

Rio Tinto employees showed up for work at 7 a.m. on that Saturday, January 31, and found the front gates to the mining compound bolted shut and an orange line spray-painted across the threshold of their former workplace. Workers were told they couldn't cross the line and return to work until their union signed the new employment contract drafted by the company.

The new agreement would allow the company to change any employees' work schedules, say from an 8-hour shift to a 12-hour shift, according to the contract, which can be found in its full version through the union miner's website. Their hours could also be reduced to part-time.

The contract also states that Rio Tinto would be able to change an employee's job duties—whether or not the person is trained to perform that job. The company also wants the right to hire non-union and contract workers—at a lower hourly rate—to replace union employees who currently make, on average, $26 per hour, the company wrote in a media statement.

"Borax has lost 20 percent of its jobs and 25 percent of its global share of sales to foreign competitors over the last 10 years," the company said in the same statement.

Rio Tinto cites its major foreign competitor Turkish Eti Maden as part of the reason they're changing the status quo and trying to find new ways to save money.

"While we're happy to pay good wages and benefits, they're significantly more than what our competitor pays in Turkey," said Susan Keefe, a Rio Tinto spokesperson.

"Staying competitive in a global marketplace is really the only way you protect jobs for the future," Keefe added. "We are an important part of the local economy. We pay $4.5 million in local taxes. We spend about $150 million with local businesses... If our business is no longer successful, all of that goes away."

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But Craig Merrilees, spokesperson for the local union said, "They want to take good jobs and turn them into junk jobs. We don't want the company taking a full time job and chopping it into a part-time job, a temporary job, a job without benefits, a job that's outsourced."

The local chapter of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union asserts that Rio Tinto's demands were not only injurious to their jobs, families and quality of life, but they are actually illegal. So the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the lockout itself is illegal. The charges are currently being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board, according to the union's website.

If the situation is not resolved quickly, the Rio Tinto lockout may have dire, long-term consequences for the town of Boron, 80 miles north east of Los Angeles in the Antelope Valley. The mine affects everything in the town, mainly because there is not much else here on the western edge of the Mojave Desert.

Boron is already hurting in the flailing economy. The city has posted unemployment rates of around 15%, higher than the state-wide unemployment average of 12.4%.

Beside the Borax mine, the nearest large employer is Edwards Air Force Base, about 25 miles west of Boron on Highway 58. It employs somewhere in the neighborhood of 13,000 employees, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The closest large city in the area is Lancaster, and it's a 55-mile drive from Boron.

The miners' only real hope for employment in a field they're qualified for is to return to the Borax mine, or they may have to move to another mining town in another state.

It's not uncommon to meet a second- or third-generation mine worker. Terri Judd is a front loader operator who has been featured in news reports by American Public Media's Marketplace and the Nation. Her name has become synonymous with the third-generation Boron miner. She sat in on our interview of the union miners, her colleagues in the pit: Jimmy Lyon, a third-generation miner; Michael and Steve Davenport, who are brothers and second-generation mineworkers; and Steve Merrilees, the union spokesperson.

The group tried to sum up their problems with Rio Tinto's new contract in an hour-long meeting, but it seemed hard for them to summarize what they feel will negate their family histories and obliterate their livelihoods in only 60 minutes.

"Our father worked out here for 30 years, retired, was union president. I grew up running around in this hall," said Michael Davenport. "This is the only way of life we've known... My father taught me that you get up at five in the morning, you lace up your boots and you go out to work everyday whether you're sick or not."

His brother, Steve, nodded in agreement from the seat next to Michael.

"They want a transient work force, and what they have here is people who have set up roots, that have passed on the knowledge of what it means to be union, what it means to have a good job, and what it means to stand up for something," added Michael.

Whether you are a union sympathizer or not, it's hard not to feel the heartbreak in their stories. One can predict that the town will be ripped apart along its well-worn seams when families have to move so their breadwinner can find permanent work again.

"I could get on my tennis shoes and walk to everybody in my family and visit them. All of my seven grand kids, I can walk to their house from my house," said Lyon. "They're going to destroy that."

"You know we're only 550-people strong, and we're trying to go up against a corporation that is worth billions and billions of dollars. They're a foreign-owned company... This is a little community to them. It don't matter to them. But it matters to us," said Lyon.

Workers are not only worried about the contract eroding their quality of life and time spent with family—they're worried about their basic safety on the job if they agreed to the new contract.

Mine work is inherently dangerous. The combination of combustible ore, cranking machinery and enormous vehicles that require highly-skilled operators can be a recipe for disaster.

Judd said simply that she wants to know that she'll be safe when she goes to work everyday.

"Knowing that the job that I'm qualified to do...day-to-day, I'm doing that job. I'm not being told, 'We don't have work for you today, so we're going to send you over into another part' where I have no experience, no knowledge, and I'm being forced to work over there," said Judd. boron4.jpg

"This is one more corporation that's being run on the basis of greed and the bottom line," said Merrilees.

Rio Tinto has recently been on the defensive on many fronts, not just in California. The company has been making headlines for a less-than illustrious lawsuit that ended Monday when four high-ranking Rio Tinto employees were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms for receiving bribes and stealing industry secrets in the company's Chinese ventures, reported the Los Angeles Times.

According to Business-HumanRights.org, a watchdog group, residents of the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea brought a lawsuit against Rio Tinto in a U.S. federal court in 2000, alleging that the company "engaged in racially discriminatory labor practices...by paying local black workers lower wages than white workers and by housing black workers in poor conditions."

The website goes on to say that in 1988, Rio Tinto, in partnership with the government of Papua New Guinea, elicited violence against mine workers who rebelled against the company. Workers rebelled after Rio Tinto dumped waste byproducts from the mine, endangering the local residents' health and environment. A decade of civil war followed, in which the Bougainville islanders sought independence from Papua New Guinea.

Islanders allege that, "Rio Tinto was complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the PNG (Papau New Guinea) army during a secessionist conflict on Bougainville," according to Business-HumanRights.org.

"The legal claim, filed by a Seattle lawyer, Steve Berman, alleges that the company brought financial influence to bear on Papua New Guinea's government, which is accused by the plaintiffs of killing 15,000 islanders through aerial bombing, village burning and other acts of destruction. It says that the company razed forests, polluted rivers, retarded crop growth and caused birth defects," wrote David Pallister of the United Kingdom's Guardian newspaper.

The lawsuit is on-going.

Susan Keefe, Rio Tinto spokesperson, pointed to what she said were positive things the company has done in its overseas ventures. She spoke of the development of an ilmenite mine, used for whitening products such as toothpaste, at the southeastern tip of Madagascar. It is a partnership between the government of Madagascar and Rio Tinto.

Keefe says that the project, recently completed, added $350 million in infrastructure development, including the dredging of a deep-sea port "that has made a whole lot of businesses viable in the area, and we're going to leave the biodiversity in better shape than we found it," said Keefe.

Not so, said Friends of the Earth in a 2007 press release.

"A controversial mining development on the island of Madagascar...is damaging the local economy, exacerbating poverty and threatening unique biodiversity," said Friends of the Earth in the statement, which was drawn from a report the group solicited from Panos London, an independent development agency.

"Research....showed that the Rio Tinto project was threatening unique forest resources and leaving local people struggling to survive in the area affected by the mine, despite commitments to provide adequate compensation and alternative jobs and to mitigate negative environmental impacts," FOE said in the statement.

All of these alleged atrocities are a world away from where the town of Boron began or where it hoped to be at this point in time. The town got its start back in the early twentieth century when a local doctor struck a different type of California gold. He was drilling for water on his property but found borax instead.

Mining claims sprung up in the region. Eventually Pacific Coast Borax Company bought all the claims and started mining the resource in 1926, most famously for use in laundry detergents such as 20-Mule Team Borax. Later in the twentieth century Rio Tinto acquired the mine.

20-Mule Team Borax became a household brand, fondly remembered for the television series it sponsored from 1952 through 1975, Death Valley Days, and for its most famous spokesperson, Ronald Reagan.

Until now, Borax was an all-American brand staffed by proud American workers, but that long-standing tradition is in upheaval .

The miners in Boron say they're not just fighting for themselves, but they are fighting for Americans everywhere who have been laid off, pink-slipped, hired as contractors or temporary employees, denied company benefits or silenced in the struggle to keep their jobs.

"That's why people carry American flags, every time they march," said Merrilees. "You know this problem isn't just here in Boron. It's happening all over America. The line is being drawn here in Boron."

Miners continue to be locked out eight weeks after the gates shut. Taking their place is a contingency work force they consider strikebreakers.

"We do have to keep operations running while the lockout continues," said Keefe. "We consider meeting our commitments to be of the utmost importance."

She added, "We need to negotiate a new agreement and get back to the bargaining table."

The union's lawyers are refusing to negotiate again until Rio Tinto ends the lockout. Rio Tinto says it won't end the lockout until the contract is negotiated and signed. Meanwhile the workers are idle, and the little desert town of Boron is hanging on, trying to avoid being buried by the shifting sands of the global economy.

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LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment  

The sob stories of the folks of Boron are sad but the truth is that companies need to do what they can to survive. The Union should begin to negotiate in good faith and try to end this strike.

The sob stories of the folks of Boron are sad but the truth is that companies need to do what they can to survive. The Union should begin to negotiate in good faith and try to end this strike.

My heartfelt concern for the people of Boron is deep but they need to work with the company to resolve the differences. The only way this can be done is by the Union sitting down at the table with the company and negotiating so that there can be an end to this strike. How can problems be resolved without talk?

My heartfelt concern for the people of Boron is deep but they need to work with the company to resolve the differences. The only way this can be done is by the Union sitting down at the table with the company and negotiating so that there can be an end to this strike. How can problems be resolved without talk?

Actually, the union is willing to talk. It was the company who would not come to the table. They made no effort to negotiate, not one.

Actually, the union is willing to talk. It was the company who would not come to the table. They made no effort to negotiate, not one.

I appreciate Pat and Judy's comment about the union should negotiate and resolve this by talk. I can tell you as one of those locked-out employees, that is what we want to do. Rio Tinto accepted none of our initial contract request and locked us out, trying to force us to sign something that would give our jobs to lowest bid contractors. We were willing to work under old contract until good faith talks could resolve our differences. Please check the link to contract and read Section 6 paragraph a, line 20. At company discretion they want to replace bargaining unit jobs with any non-bargaining unit. That is only one of the many threats to what used to be decent family, and community supporting jobs.

I appreciate Pat and Judy's comment about the union should negotiate and resolve this by talk. I can tell you as one of those locked-out employees, that is what we want to do. Rio Tinto accepted none of our initial contract request and locked us out, trying to force us to sign something that would give our jobs to lowest bid contractors. We were willing to work under old contract until good faith talks could resolve our differences. Please check the link to contract and read Section 6 paragraph a, line 20. At company discretion they want to replace bargaining unit jobs with any non-bargaining unit. That is only one of the many threats to what used to be decent family, and community supporting jobs.

Its easy to see what Rio Tinto is trying to accomplish. Total control of their workforce. They don't wish to bargain, they want to bust the union. Pat Hammond and Judy Hillion sound like they work for the company. They feel that it is right to bring a whole town to its knees, They should be politicians. All it takes is a little investigation to see how Rio Tinto has treated the populations of the other areas in which they own mines. They are the representatives of greed that is so apparent in the corporate structure of today. They want a fiefdom in which to operate. But its obvious Rio Tinto management has no conscience. Wake up America. Your next.

Its easy to see what Rio Tinto is trying to accomplish. Total control of their workforce. They don't wish to bargain, they want to bust the union. Pat Hammond and Judy Hillion sound like they work for the company. They feel that it is right to bring a whole town to its knees, They should be politicians. All it takes is a little investigation to see how Rio Tinto has treated the populations of the other areas in which they own mines. They are the representatives of greed that is so apparent in the corporate structure of today. They want a fiefdom in which to operate. But its obvious Rio Tinto management has no conscience. Wake up America. Your next.

It is a shame, but times have changed since your father and grandfather were union members. Unions have lost, and continue to lose, political power in the U.S. All you need do is look at the United Auto Workers as an example. The only permanent thing in life is change...and change is happening not only in America, but all across the globe. Get used to the fact that things are just not going to be like they were decades ago.

It is a shame, but times have changed since your father and grandfather were union members. Unions have lost, and continue to lose, political power in the U.S. All you need do is look at the United Auto Workers as an example. The only permanent thing in life is change...and change is happening not only in America, but all across the globe. Get used to the fact that things are just not going to be like they were decades ago.

While i feel for the families affected by the lock out...unfortunately, Rio Tinto has to compete in a global market. This isn't your grandfather's economy anymore...Rio Tinto has to fight the union or eventually, endure the same ugly fate as Ford and GM. Union or non-union worker - I dont think you should be entitled to be paid more than the market will bear or guaranteed a job in an at will employment state. As painful as it is, this is global capitalism at work.

While i feel for the families affected by the lock out...unfortunately, Rio Tinto has to compete in a global market. This isn't your grandfather's economy anymore...Rio Tinto has to fight the union or eventually, endure the same ugly fate as Ford and GM. Union or non-union worker - I dont think you should be entitled to be paid more than the market will bear or guaranteed a job in an at will employment state. As painful as it is, this is global capitalism at work.

I feel bad for them, but i have a family to support too, and been applying to all sorts of jobs with no luck so if i have to take from another your d*** right i will i dont think about anyone but my kids first. Good luck with finding a job else where cause the union is going down and dont dwell on the past and if you all wanted to work you would of ditched the union to provide for your family i would and they all make very good money so its there fault and the union yea what about unions they get all there money from who????? YOU and for what there own F***ing pockets the head union guys are feeding there families just fine right

I feel bad for them, but i have a family to support too, and been applying to all sorts of jobs with no luck so if i have to take from another your d*** right i will i dont think about anyone but my kids first. Good luck with finding a job else where cause the union is going down and dont dwell on the past and if you all wanted to work you would of ditched the union to provide for your family i would and they all make very good money so its there fault and the union yea what about unions they get all there money from who????? YOU and for what there own F***ing pockets the head union guys are feeding there families just fine right

Dick seems to be an appropriate name for a person commenting on a subject he has real knowledge of. Take some time, do some investigation before you comment. Corporate greed is undermining the American way of life. Here in the U.S., you only need to remember examples like AIG and Enron. And overseas corporations is a topic to itself. Foreign Corporations terrorizing the American working interstructure and the middle class tier and way of life. I challenge you to take the time to do a little more investigation and a bit deeper before you comment on a subject your not prepared to defend.

Dick seems to be an appropriate name for a person commenting on a subject he has real knowledge of. Take some time, do some investigation before you comment. Corporate greed is undermining the American way of life. Here in the U.S., you only need to remember examples like AIG and Enron. And overseas corporations is a topic to itself. Foreign Corporations terrorizing the American working interstructure and the middle class tier and way of life. I challenge you to take the time to do a little more investigation and a bit deeper before you comment on a subject your not prepared to defend.

Info i got info you all are saying that stuff on foreign companies then HELLO you work for one and you all get so mad at "scabs" but you all know youll get your jobs back and make tons of money so think of it as a donation to the "scabs" so why get pissed at them. what would you do if that was the only job that came your way for years? and before you answer that think of your kids without!!!!!!

Info i got info you all are saying that stuff on foreign companies then HELLO you work for one and you all get so mad at "scabs" but you all know youll get your jobs back and make tons of money so think of it as a donation to the "scabs" so why get pissed at them. what would you do if that was the only job that came your way for years? and before you answer that think of your kids without!!!!!!