Rio Tinto can’t beat us

April 5, 2011

John Green review a new film that documents last year's lockout at Rio Tinto.

THE BARREN Mojave Desert may seem like an unlikely place for a labor dispute--or anything else interesting, for that matter--but class struggle has an uncanny knack for erupting wherever labor and capital co-exist. Thus, Joan Sekler's Locked Out is a welcome window into an otherwise easily missed tale of worker resistance to austerity.

On January 31, 2010, the mining giant Rio Tinto locked out more than 500 union workers at its Boron, Calif., plant. The workers, represented by International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 30, had been negotiating for months. Rio Tinto demanded concessions on pensions, sick days, overtime, drug testing, promotions and seniority.

Locked Out brings to life the 15-week struggle--warts and all. It shows a side of America ignored by the media: rural, blue-collar and hammered by capitalism.

The film begins with clips from anti-union pinheads like Glenn Beck, reminding us that the labor movement is under attack. But other than this brief introduction, there is no overview of the state of the economy, no narration throughout the film. The voices of the workers tell the story instead.

Rallying in support of Rio Tinto workers
Rallying in support of Rio Tinto workers

Boron is a hardscrabble town. I've been there several times. Its whole economy is dependent on the borax mines. Within hours of hearing that my uncle was locked out, I quickly circulated letters at my work asking for financial solidarity. People I had barely interacted with in my six years as a teacher surprised me with donations--in the same month, our health insurance premiums had jumped 8 percent.

A lockout is an economic terror tactic, an employer strategy to starve workers into accepting bad deals. One worker called it the "grapes of wrath." For young families or those with chronic conditions, the hardship was intensified when Rio Tinto cut off their health care, too.

Bear in mind that Rio Tinto is a $6.3 billion multinational. So financial solidarity is key to surviving the siege.

By the second weekend of the lockout, my family made the seven-hour drive to Boron, stopping at a Costco along the way to pick up $250 worth of food for the union pantry. (As a side note, an economy-size Honda Civic doesn't comfortably fit two adults, an infant, luggage and $250 worth of Cup O Noodles.)

Review: Movies

Locked Out, a documentary by Joan Sekler.

SEKLER'S DOCUMENTARY captures some of the most inspiring acts of solidarity in recent labor history, such as: the Los Angeles grocery workers who contributed $30,000 worth of food to Boron families; the Teamster big rigs that carried the food from LA to the desert, arriving to a cheering crowd of workers who knew they're not alone in the fight; and the miners at Rio Tinto plants across America who raised money for Boron by selling solidarity T-shirts...that they wore to work each day.

The film includes a solidarity rally of public school employees about a month into the lockout, led by the California School Employees Association. "As a local teacher our livelihood depends on this town," explained a man holding his young son on his shoulders. "Plus, as far as I'm concerned, the company is wrong in their demands."

More rallies are included in the film outside the British Consulate in Los Angeles, outside an annual shareholders meeting in London and an amusingly bizarre yet apt Avatar-themed protest that you just have to see for yourself. Within days of the lockout, dockers from Australia descended on Boron to help their brothers and sisters. It's a poignant moment in the documentary.

As the film shows, the struggle against Rio Tinto changed the mindset of the workers. One woman told the filmmakers, "We drew the line in the sand there because this company cannot continue with their corporate greed destroying working families, taking away their jobs not just in America, not just in Australia, but all around the world."

The Boron struggle made clear the overriding priority of corporations, and the unyielding solidarity of workers around the world. (Not to mention the role of the local sheriff's department, protecting Rio Tinto's private property and escorting scabs into the plant each day.)

Locked Out also highlights, without comment, some of the weaknesses of the union struggle. The union constantly framed the conflict as "patriotic Americans" versus "a greedy foreign company." The reality, at every turn, was international worker solidarity against multinational greed.

One of the best segments of the film is also the most unexpected: Rio Tinto's environmental and human rights abuses in Papua New Guinea. In the 1970s, Rio Tinto moved into Bougainville, an impoverished island, to mine iron and gold.

They brought in 9,000 foreign workers, failing to hire a single island resident. They pursued open pit and mountaintop removal techniques that left poisonous tailings in the water supply and choking dust in the air.

Protesters responded by dynamiting the electrical towers at the mining operation. When the national army arrived to put down the unrest, Rio Tinto provided them with helicopters. The ensuing decade-long civil war claimed upward of 20,000 lives. Sound like a familiar movie plot? (Rio Tinto is currently being sued for war crimes.)

THE CONTROVERSIAL settlement that ended the lockout after nearly four long months is only briefly addressed. Local 30 gave up pension plans for new hires--they'll get 401k plans, instead. Any observer of the labor movement will note the parallels to the two-tier concessions adopted by the United Auto Workers over the past two decades.

Steven Davenport, one of the miners, spoke to the documentary makers while in line to vote: "I think we gave up too much for it for me personally to [vote] for it." The agreement passed by a vote of 279 to 95.

By the end of the lockout, discontent over the union strategy had also begun to bubble up through the rank and file over the International's refusal to shut down the Los Angeles ports early on for handling scab cargo from the desert mines.

The reference to this controversy is so oblique that most viewers will miss it. But it's a crucial question facing the labor movement and deserves a broader discussion.

At 90 minutes, Locked Out is not a YouTube clip. It covers the many aspects of a long labor struggle so it drags on at a few points. (Sekler says that they will produce a shorter version for union meetings, school viewings and film festivals.) Allowing workers to speak for themselves is a powerful dynamic missing from most documentaries, but Locked Out plays as more of a well-edited "primary source" that requires some working knowledge of the struggle before viewing.

A final comment: "Low budget" is a relative term. For an independent filmmaker like Joan Sekler, documenting a four-month long struggle followed by months in post-production, is not an inexpensive project.

Our labor movement needs people like Sekler who are spreading news of workers' struggles today and preserving them for future generations of militants. You can support her work by picking up a copy of the film, recommending it to your coworkers and friends or hosting a screening.

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