New Labor Contract Causes Frustration Among Rio Tinto Borax Miners

After a three-and-a-half month lockout, giant mining corporation Rio Tinto and union workers at the company's Borax mine in Boron, Calif. are struggling to adjust to a new contract the union passed last month.

Most of the union miners are back on the job now that a three-week grace period is over. Many say they are frustrated with the company's new practices, which began with a series of locker checks on their first day back at the job site. The company largely cleared out the on-site lockers, confiscating company tools and other materials the workers had long been accustomed to keeping with them.

"One of the first jobs I was put on, my partner goes, 'Do you have any scotch locks?' [I said] 'I don't--I don't have any. They took them all from me,'" said Brett Davies, an instrumentation electrician at the mine.

Rio Tinto's Bob Deal, a research director, said the locker checks were instituted to make sure the workers had the correct tools, and that a certain amount of confusion is normal when there is a new contract, especially when the workers have been out of the mine for so long.

"This is...the third labor force we've been through here over the past four or five months," Deal said. "That's a bit of a challenge in its own right--getting everybody back in and retrained and up to speed."

Rio Tinto Borax blocked the union miners from entering the work site on Jan. 31 after contract negotiations between the company and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union came to a standstill. The lockout ended after the union approved a new contract on May 15, with two thirds of the members voting for it. 

Both the union and the company said at the time they were happy with the contract, which gives the 570 union workers a $5,000 bonus and a yearly 2.5 percent pay increase. The company won the right to base promotions on skill and ability and to offer new hires a 401(k) plan instead of the current pension plan.

Since the union workers returned to the mine, one of the challenges has been the contract itself, which Deal said can be unclear in parts. For instance, he said the company is trying to figure out how overtime will work under the new contract.

"The wording just isn't specific enough," Deal said. "So that's an area we're working through right now, is...what's the best way to take the contract language and make it work."

Union workers said Rio Tinto is trying to use the contract to their advantage.

"The company is pushing as far as they can to see what they can get, and we're fighting back," said Dave Irish, a front loader operator who was part of the union negotiating team. "There's things in the agreement that they're not adhering to, so we're making them adhere to it."

One of the miners' biggest complaints is that the company is changing jobs they have known inside and out for years.  They claim the company is moving workers to tasks outside their areas of expertise to make up for being short-staffed, making skilled technicians perform manual labor, and instituting mandatory overtime.

"They want to just change everything. And it's like...we felt like we had ownership of our jobs and we took some self-worth inside our jobs, and they actually are taking that away from us," Davies said.

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