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Labor War in the Mojave | The Nation

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Labor War in the Mojave

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The biggest hole in California, with the exception of the current state budget, is Rio Tinto's huge open-pit mine at the town of Boron, near Edwards Air Force Base, eighty miles northeast of Los Angeles.

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Mike Davis
Mike Davis, a Nation contributing editor, teaches in the creative writing program at the University of California,...

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I thought I might find a simple meme of the Wall Street protest. What I discovered was a desert flower brought to blossom by an activist tradition, coalition-building and old-fashioned grit.

I'm not capable of accurately describing the kindness, intensity and melancholy that were alloyed in Carl's character, or the profound role he played in deepening our commitment to the anti-war movement.

Seen from Google Earth, it is easy to imagine that the 700-foot-deep crater was blasted out of the Mojave Desert by an errant asteroid or comet. From the vantage point of Highway 58, however, the landscape is enigmatic: a mile-long rampart of ochre earth and gray mudstone, terminating at what looks like a giant chemical refinery.

At night, when a driver's mind is most prone to legends of the desert, the complex's intense illumination is startling, even slightly extraterrestrial, like the sinister off-world mining colony in Aliens.

Terri Judd's labor owns part of this eerie landscape--or rather its void. She's a third-generation borax miner, as deeply rooted in the high desert as one of the native Joshua trees. Every working morning for the past thirteen years, she has bundled her long red hair under a hard hat, climbed up the ladder of a giant Le Tourneau wheel loader and turned on its 1,600-horsepower Detroit Diesel engine. Her air-conditioned cab perches almost treetop height above custom-made, twelve-foot-high tires that cost $30,000 each. She operates this leviathan with delicate manipulations of two joysticks, more high-skill video game than Mad Max.

In a regular twelve-and-a-half-hour shift, she ceaselessly repeats the same mechanical calisthenic: lowering her twenty-foot-wide bucket, deftly scooping up twenty-five to thirty tons of borax ore, then delivering the load to one of the mine's plants to be made into boric acid or granulated for eventual use in dozens of industrial applications, from fiberglass surfboards to HD display screens.

Each year 1 million tons of borax products are fed into hopper cars (800 of which are permanently assigned to the mine) and hauled to the LA harbor for shipment to China and other industrializing countries hungry for the caustic residue of the Mojave's ancient lakes. The Boron pit, which replaced an underground mine, produces almost half the world's supply of refined borates.

Strip-mining the Mojave may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Terri--a combat veteran of Operation Desert Storm and a single mom--flat-out loves her job. "What can I say? We get to play with the big toys. I guess I was always a tomboy. I preferred Tonkas to Barbies, socket wrenches to dollhouses."

But she doesn't play alone: Big Brother is looking over her shoulder, evaluating her performance. "In effect, the boss rides with me. The GPS in my loader can be monitored not only from the plant but from Rio Tinto's US headquarters in Denver, or, for that matter, from the global head office in London."

Peeping Toms, however, don't normally perturb Terri. "There are no slackers in the pit. Our productivity is sky-high because borax mining is our family history." Indeed, a Boron workforce shrunk to less than 40 percent of its 1980 size produces record outputs despite a rapidly aging plant; an ornery, dipping ore body; and an increasingly remote and hostile management.

I

Terri acknowledges that her devotion to the mine has been an act of unrequited love. In last year's contract negotiations, Rio Tinto (the British-Australian multinational acquired its Boron facility, U.S. Borax, in 1968 and renamed it Rio Tinto Borax) stunned members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ILWU, Local 30 (Boron), by demanding abolition of the contractually enshrined seniority system and the surrender of any worker voice in the labor process.

According to Dean Gehring, the latest in a succession of recent mine managers, international competition compels a drastic switch to "high-performance teams that have the flexibility to do many different jobs, and we need to reward and promote our top performers. The old contract doesn't allow us to do that."

The company wants a contract that would allow it to capriciously promote or demote; to outsource union jobs; to convert full-time to part-time positions with little or no benefits; to reorganize shift schedules without warning; to eliminate existing work rules; to cut holidays, sick leave and pension payments; to impose involuntary overtime; and to heavily penalize the union if workers file grievances against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.

Rio Tinto, in essence, claims the right to rule by divine whim, to blatantly discriminate against and even fire employees for felonies like "failing to have or maintain satisfactory inter-personal relationships with Company personnel, client personnel, contractor, and visitors."

"The company's proposal," union negotiators emphasize, "would destroy our union, lower our living standards, and give Borax total control over our jobs." On January 30, Local 30 members unanimously rejected the concessions demanded by Rio Tinto.

The company deadline expired the next morning, when Terri Judd set off for work as usual with her lunchbox and thermos. At the locked front gate she and other day-shift workers encountered a phalanx of nervous Kern County sheriff's deputies in full riot gear. Inside the plant, an elite "strike security team" hired by Rio Tinto had taken control of operations.

Delaware-based J.R. Gettier & Associates brags that it is the Home Depot of unionbusting, a one-stop source for security planners, armed guards, legal experts, industrial spies and, most important, highly skilled replacement workers. It even has staff who can operate Terri's giant loader.

The Gettier mercenaries wore sneers and dark glasses as they pushed their convoy past a crowd of angry Local 30 members. "Being locked out," says Terri, "is different from going on strike. Initially there's disbelief that the company is actually serious about booting you out the door. Hey, my granddad worked in this mine. But then you see that caravan of scabs coming to take your jobs, and the betrayal cuts like a knife in your heart."

II

Once upon a time, there were several thousand mining communities in North America; perhaps fewer than a hundred still exist. Boron (unincorporated, population 2,000) is one of the survivors--and all the more anomalous since it is not in the red desert of Wyoming or the hills of West Virginia but in the outer orbit of Los Angeles sprawl. In the boom days of the 1930s it was a textbook company town, where employees of what was then called Pacific Borax--many of them, like Terri Judd's grandfather, Dust Bowl Oklahomans--lived in company houses and used company scrip to shop at the company store.

Unionization (originally by an old AFL affiliate called the Borax Workers Union) ended the feudal era, but the one-employer character of the town remained intact until a bitter, often violent 132-day strike in 1974 forced blacklisted miners to seek new jobs. Some found work at a nearby rocket-test range, while others learned to polish mirrors at an Israeli-built solar power station or applied for guard jobs at the federal prison up the road.

But economic diversity remains limited, and fully one-quarter of Boron's households still punched a Rio Tinto time clock this past New Year's. There are probably an equal number of mine retirees and former employees, so virtually everyone in town has some intimate link to the mine and its turbulent history.

During the 1974 conflict Boron polarized into majority pro-union and minority pro-company factions. There was a famous riot at the front gate in the first hours of the conflict, followed by the dynamiting of several foremen's homes, the blowing up of the mine's power line, episodic exchanges of gunfire, an exodus of managerial employees and de facto martial law during the nearly yearlong occupation of the community by Kern County sheriffs.

The current lockout, in contrast, rallies a far more inclusive local patriotism. Along Twenty Mule Team Road, Support Borax Miners placards festoon the windows of homes and pickups. Skateboarders and grandmothers wear black Union Tough T-shirts. Sympathy with the ILWU is not a condition for loathing Rio Tinto's hireling army of scabs and guards.

III

Day twelve. The lockout is beginning to feel like a reverse siege. It is the town, not the mine, that is under growing pressure. At the Local 30 hall, the "gate watch" crew reports that the sheriff's deputies have become quite relaxed, even friendly, probably because they're engaged in their own contract battle with county supervisors. But the replacements have become more brazen, at one point deliberately bumping into a union member with their van.

One of the organizers gravely notes the incident on his legal pad, then returns to the kitchen, where he huddles with his cellphone. He's calling the Local roster to remind members about next week's big solidarity march. Boron workers are awaiting the arrival of ILWU members from up and down the West Coast, as well as a contingent of mining and dock union-leaders from around the world.

Across the hall, meanwhile, Terri is arguing with another loader operator, Kevin Martz, over which of them performs the most herculean labor in the pit.

Quantitatively, there should be no contest: Kevin operates a P&H 4100 "ultra class" shovel with a 115-ton payload capacity, one of the biggest machines in the mining world. In a few workdays he could probably dig the Panama Canal by himself. But Terri believes that quality is more important. "Come on, Kevin, you only shovel dirt; I dig ore. I'm high value."

Kevin pretends a smirk, then chuckles. He explains that a mining shift, like an army platoon in combat, relies upon constant ribbing to sustain camaraderie. "Our work depends upon friendship, not competition. In an environment of dangerous machines and high explosives, we have to watch each other's backs."

Neither he nor Terri discerns any rational logic in Rio Tinto's zeal to atomize the traditional work community and promote a dog-eat-dog struggle for bonuses.

"Some genius in Denver or London," Terri says, "believes that you can improve output by adopting the law of the jungle. But without a fair system to determine promotion and pay, teamwork will be undermined and morale will collapse. The mine will become less productive and more dangerous."

Conversation moves to the impact of the lockout on the town's economy. Terri is a major mover-shaker in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, while Kevin is a scout leader and active member of his Latter-day Saints ward.

"Normally the VFW is packed to the rafters on Friday nights for karaoke," Terri explains, "but last Friday there were just three families. Business at Domingo's [a Mexican restaurant made famous by its popularity among Space Shuttle crews from nearby Edwards] is way down, and the town dentist could close because everyone has lost their family dental benefits."

Kevin adds that many Local 30 families, especially those who recently bought homes in now-sunk boom-burbs like Victorville and Palmdale, forty or so miles from Boron, face imminent disaster. "Their mortgages are already below periscope depth, so the lockout is just the final shove out the front door. They'll lose their homes."

Kevin believes that fundamental values are under threat. Like many working-class Mormons--the most misunderstood social group in the American West--he's a good trade unionist but no liberal. Not inaccurately, he sees Local 30 making a conservative last stand on behalf of the decent jobs that allow frugal families to prosper in stable, human-scale communities like Boron.

"My wife's a schoolteacher at Edwards Air Force Base, we've no debts other than our mortgage, our kids flourish in local schools, we love the desert--yet if Rio Tinto continues to play this hand, we'll eventually be forced to leave, perhaps to Wyoming."

Terri, the quintessential Boronite, confesses that she also has been wondering whether pits in Nevada or Wyoming are looking for experienced loader operators. She's optimistic about the union but knows that Rio Tinto wields power almost beyond ordinary people's reckoning. "Will we be a ghost town next year? That's the real issue."

IV

"Where the hell is Bougainville?" someone asks Dave Dorton.

"An island near New Guinea," he replies.

The Local 30 gate-watchers are gathered under a sun canopy, drinking black coffee and talking about the skeletons in the company's closet. Dave, a dashing character who looks like he just jumped off a Viking longship, is "silo chief" at the plant and one of Local 30's many old-school bikers. He says that the lockout has incited new rank-and-file interest in Rio Tinto's notorious history. "It's like waking up and discovering that you're married to a serial murderer."

Last summer the US district court in Los Angeles upheld the standing of Bougainville residents--represented by Steve Berman, the superstar class-action litigator--to sue Rio Tinto in an American court for "crimes against humanity, war crimes, and racial discrimination." Like the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Dickens's Bleak House, the suit is moving glacially through the courts against terrific opposition from the corporation and may take years to reach a judgment, but the charges are horrifying.

In the late 1960s Rio Tinto, supported by Australia (and after 1975 by the independent government of Papua New Guinea--PNG), began expropriating land in the fertile center of the northernmost Solomon Island of Bougainville to mine one of the world's richest copper deposits. Millions of tons of pit tailings poisoned ecosystems and devastated local agriculture, and by 1989 the relentless repression of nonviolent protest ignited a full-scale revolutionary uprising. The company appealed to its business partner, the neocolonial Papuan government.

In Bougainville, according to its former commander, General Singirok, "the PNG Defence Force was Rio Tinto's personal security force and was ordered take action by any means necessary." The lawsuit provides stunning evidence of company/government atrocities in a conflict that led to the death of almost 10 percent of the island's population. (During the Spanish Civil War, Rio Tinto applauded Gen. Francisco Franco for executing the radical miners who had occupied its namesake Spanish property.)

Bougainville is only one item in a long résumé of devastation. The Norwegian government pension fund, the world's second-largest, recently divested $870 million in Rio Tinto stock to protest its "unethical" partnership with Freeport McMoRan in the infamous Grasberg mine in Indonesian-occupied Irian Jaya (western New Guinea). Grasberg is an environmental disaster almost beyond imagination, and as in Bougainville, tribal resistance has been met with assassinations and massacres by the Indonesian Army.

If Rio Tinto's operations in the southwest Pacific recall King Leopold's Congo, its industrial relations, from southern Africa to Labrador and Utah, are a state-of-the-art experiment in worker intimidation.

In southern Africa, miners' unions have long questioned whether Rio Tinto, long rumored to have supplied uranium to Pretoria's clandestine atomic weapons program in the 1970s, has ever really broken with apartheid in its treatment of black workers. In February there was a worker uprising at its huge Rössing uranium pit in Namibia over management's unilateral raising of performance quotas and its refusal to address worker grievances. (Interestingly, the government of Iran is Rio Tinto's junior partner, with 15 percent of shares, at Rössing.)

In Australia, where the company exploits some of the world's most important iron, coal and uranium reserves, it has uprooted traditional unions, cut real wages and (as it is now trying to do in Boron) replaced collective bargaining with variable individual contracts.

Aussie miners and train drivers, however, have fought back with wildcat strikes and new organizing campaigns. Their defiance has led the company to an extraordinary solution: a fully automated "mine of the future" that won't require unruly miners or railroad workers. A working prototype is being developed in the remote Pilbara iron range: eleven mines with robotized drilling, automated haul trucks and, soon, driverless ore trains, all controlled from an operations center in Perth, 800 miles away.

Industry analysts debate whether this automated mining revolution will be feasible outside the largest, near-surface iron and coal deposits, so Local 30 probably doesn't need to worry about any imminent augmentation of scabs with robots. But they're urgently trying to decipher the complex and ruthless game that Rio Tinto and other mining superpowers are playing on a world stage.

 

V

The industrial revolution in Asia is bringing to a climax the struggle for ownership of the earth's strategic metals and minerals that began in the late nineteenth century. For instance, a single merger, between Rio Tinto and the even larger BHP Billiton, would create the world's third-largest corporation (after ExxonMobil and GE), with unprecedented power to set prices for exports of iron, aluminum, copper and titanium.

To put it another way, such a mega-merger could exact enormous rents from the future industrial growth of China and the rest of Asia--something that Beijing, at least, has no intention of allowing to happen (iron ore is China's second most costly import, after oil).

What Forbes called "the Battle for Rio Tinto" began two years ago, at the end of the 2000s mining boom, when cash-flush BHP attempted a hostile takeover that was countered by multibillion-dollar blocking offers of new investment from the government-controlled Aluminum Corporation of China.

But as resource prices slumped after the Wall Street crash, Rio Tinto share values were immediately pulled under by the weight of the $38 billion debt the company had incurred to buy Alcan (before BHP did) in 2007. BHP, faced with Rio Tinto's inability to sell its Alcan debt as bonds, as well as the subsequent downgrading of its credit, temporarily called off the attack, while the still ardent Chinese were rudely rebuffed by Rio Tinto's rebellious shareholders, supported by xenophobic Australian politicians.

Rio Tinto managed to survive the first year of recession by cutting thousands of jobs and selling off $10 billion of nonessential assets while retrenching in its core mission of exploiting "large, low-cost ore bodies." Mine managers in its minerals division, which includes borates, were told that future investment in their operations would only reward dramatic cost-cutting and higher earnings, not status quo profits. Labor, it seems, is an especially "compressible" cost.

In the specific case of Boron, the financing of a project called "the Modified Direct Dissolving of Kernite," advertised as the key to the mine's long-term profitability, was made conditional upon achieving "flexibility and accountability in our work practices"--that is to say, scrapping the old collective bargaining agreement with Local 30.

In negotiations, Rio Tinto took the intransigent stand that the crisis in world mining had made such union contracts obsolete. Yet since last fall, Rio Tinto and other ore giants have surfed spectacular recoveries on the wave of China's renewed growth, with iron prices expected to rise by as much as 50 percent this year.

Cash flow from other mineral products, including borates, and surges in mine share prices have been bolstered by a huge influx of investment from pension funds and other institutional investors--probably a speculative bubble in the making.

Then, in a staggering move, Rio Tinto betrayed its Chinese suitors and eloped with BHP. Their love child is a joint-production venture--in essence, a partial merger--that consolidates their huge iron ore operations in Australia, giving them unprecedented price-setting power over the world's most important metal.

Indeed, both Tom Albanese, Rio Tinto's CEO, and Marius Kloppers, his counterpart at BHP, recently warned major customers that annual price benchmarks will become a thing of the past, as the mining combination adjusts pricing to the volatile spot market. China, in particular, could see its steel and manufacturing costs rise by billions.

Beijing's immediate, furious response was to arrest Rio Tinto's top four executives in Shanghai for "espionage" (the charges were later reduced to bribery). Chinese officials talk darkly about the Rio Tinto/BHP "monopoly," although undoubtedly they would prefer to own part of it rather than actually dismantle it.

VI

The future of a small town in the Mojave is thus entangled in geoeconomic competitions far larger and more important than the borate market itself. So what chance do 560 miners and their families have in a fight with Godzilla?

The record of the past twenty years is not encouraging. With some heroic exceptions--the 1989-90 Pittston coal strike in Virginia, the 1990s Frontier Casinos strike in Las Vegas and a few others--international unions have seldom been willing to support a local fight to the last bullet or bitter dime.

But ILWU has a unique street credibility. The pit bull of CIO-generation unions, it bit into the heels of the West Coast stevedoring industry in 1934 and never let go. Industrial unions are supposed to be dying, but the ILWU, despite its modest size, punches hard enough to keep the powerful Pacific Maritime Association sulking in its corner, while ensuring that the docks remain safe and well paid.

As the only union that survived McCarthyism with its left-wing leadership (under Harry Bridges) intact, the ILWU is also legendary for putting muscle behind the slogan of "working-class solidarity." Since the 1960s it has conducted scores of job actions and walkouts in support of striking Australian dockers, California farmworkers and South African freedom fighters. Indeed, in May 2008 the union shut down the West Coast for a day to protest the war in Iraq.

In anticipation of the Boron lockout, ILWU had persuaded members of an international coalition of mining and maritime unions--many of whom have done battle with Rio Tinto--to hold their periodic conference in the nearby desert city of Palmdale. On February 16 the delegates, along with rank and file from other ILWU locals, arrive in Boron for a march to the mine followed by a big Local 30 barbecue.

The overture to the protest is the earthshaking full-throttle roar of shovelhead and twin-cam Harley-Davidson engines. The stevedore-bikers of Local 13 (LA Harbor) emerge out of the desert haze like Marlon Brando's leather-clad horde in The Wild One (or, better, the Comanches in Blood Meridian).

Someone, awe-struck, whispers, "Glad these guys are on our side." Later I count twenty-six Harley black beauties corralled in a reverential semicircle on the street side of the union hall. (The unfortunate owners of rice-burners and pasta rockets have had to remove their imported Japanese and Italian bikes to a discreet distance.)

Carloads of out-of-town ILWU members arrive, then two buses carrying dozens of US and foreign labor leaders. The crowd applauds, people shake hands, someone turns up the volume on "Born in the USA" and the marchers begin to assemble, about 600-strong, behind a banner that spans the entire width of the road: An Injury to One Is an Injury to All.

It's an easy one-mile walk in pleasant weather to the front gate. Local 30 brings a dozen American and Marine Corps flags to the front, and begins to chant, "We Wanna Work, We Wanna Work." The sheriffs are relaxed, but the Gettier security guards up the road nervously shift their feet. As usual, their faces are inscrutable behind dark glasses, but you can almost smell their guilty sweat.

VII

Imagine a picnic jointly organized by the IWW, the American Legion and the Hells Angels. One of the first speakers is Oupa Komane from the South African miners' union. He has a magnificent voice: "Comrades, I bring you revolutionary greetings from the miners of South Africa!" I look around to see how the "comrades" waving American flags react. Komane gets warm applause.

A battle-hardened copper miner from Utah (where Rio Tinto owns the great Kennecott pit at Bingham Canyon) says, "I can't tell you what I think of this company--not in front of women and children." An Australian warns, "They will kill your town. That's what they did to us." A Canadian talks about more dead mill towns in Quebec, while a New Zealander tells a story about Rio Tinto's sinister role in defeating climate-change legislation in his country.

The fiery head of the Turkish borate workers, whose state-owned industry (Eti Mine Works) was founded by Atatürk, father of the Turkish Republic, brings greetings from the Borons of Anatolia: Kirka, Emet, Kestelek and Bandirma. He scoffs at Rio Tinto's claim that his miners' lower hourly wages (almost $10 in a cheap country, versus an average of $26 in Boron) necessitates the trashing of union rights in California.

Finally, Ken Riley, president of the largely black International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina, and a leader of one of the most courageous fights in modern US labor history [see JoAnn Wypijewski, "Audacity on Trial," August 6/13, 2001], summarizes the case for optimism: "You pick on the ILWU, you pick on the world. When our own international deserted us, they were there. Now we're here."

Later, I take Ken aside and confess my doubts. He shakes his head. "I understand what you're saying, but you're wrong," he says. "This isn't political theater. The first month of a struggle is decisive, and the ILWU is doing a terrific job marketing Boron's importance to the rest of the labor movement. Internationally, our unions understand that we have to organize the logistics chain, from producers to transport to distributor to retailer. This is a new model of power for the labor movement, like industrial unionism in the 1930s, but adapted to the reality of globalization."

"But Boron?" I ask.

"Hey, something new is being born here. It has to be."

Toni McCormick, a pretty, jovial woman in her late 20s, gives me a ride back to my car. The wife of a Local 30 member, she coaches the cheer squad at Boron High. "I'm fourth generation," she tells me. "My great-grandfather's house is still standing, made out of old dynamite boxes held together with chicken wire. Our football team plays in a high desert league with other mining and military towns. Sometimes they have to tackle each other in the dirt because grass won't grow in a saline lake bed."

"Can anything grow in a dry lake?" I wonder.

"Sure," Toni smiles. "Miners can."

 

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