Boron strike ends with ILWU victory

May 19, 2010

John Green reports on a victory for miners in California's Mojave Desert.

LAST WEEKEND marked a quiet end to a 15-week-long lockout of nearly 600 miners in California--but the victorious outcome spoke volumes about what's possible, even during an economic crisis, when workers take a stand.

Union workers at the Boron plant run by mining conglomerate Rio Tinto in California's Mojave Desert were locked out of their jobs in late January. The workers, members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 30, had been without a contract for months when Rio Tinto closed the doors on them.

The fight at Boron wasn't about money. Rio Tinto, an Anglo-American multinational, had been trying to impose contract provisions that would have gutted the union by eliminating seniority rights, eliminating half of workers' accrued sick days, reducing pension contributions by 25 percent and allowing management to force workers to take drug and alcohol tests, and physical or mental exams, at any time.

But the miners' solidarity and courage withstood the union-busting attack by Rio Tinto, a highly profitable multinational corporation.

Boron miners won support from across the U.S. and around the globe. As miner Tom Owens explained in an interview earlier this month, "[M]iners are visiting us from across the globe. Two weeks ago, we held protests outside the British consulates in Los Angeles, San Francisco, even Seattle. There were 2,000 people in Los Angeles. Our brothers and sisters in LA organized a food caravan 'From the Docks to the Desert.'"

Tellingly, Rio Tinto didn't even offer a press release after ILWU workers ratified a new six-year contract by a 3-to-1 margin.

Only a few weeks ago, Rio Tinto's economic terrorism seemed set to wreck not only the lives of Local 30 members, but also the entire economy of their small town of Boron (with its population of 2,000).

The agreement calls for annual wage increases of 2.5 percent and a $5,000 signing bonus. Against the company's demands, the contract maintains the seniority system, prevents conversion of full-time positions into part-time and inserts an agreement against sub-contracting jobs.

The agreement preserves union pensions for current employees--another key target of the company's attack. However, new hires will be placed into an employer-sponsored 401(k). Other concessions include reducing annual sick days from 14 to 10 and capping sick days at 200 hours.

Still, the contract stopped Rio Tinto's attack on many fronts. Jane Slaughter of Labor Notes identified four factors that kept the company from steamrollering workers: community and labor support, both material and moral; global solidarity protests by other mining unions; the inability of scab labor to fill orders; and political pressure halting plans for new mining of federal land in Arizona.

Recovering financially from a punishing, months-long lockout will take time. But in an era of wringing concessions from workers across every industry, Local 30's defiant attitude and eventual victory are an important example. Add them to the small but growing list of workers fighting back in the recession.

Further Reading

From the archives