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Labor Struggle in Boron: Union Workers in CA Town Locked Out by Mining Giant Rio Tinto After Stalled Contract Talks

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The California mining town of Boron is the site of the second-largest borax mine in the world. A labor struggle is unfolding between some 600 workers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 30 and the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. Workers at the mine have been locked out of their workplace for nearly two months after contract negotiations with Rio Tinto hit a stalemate. We talk to one of the locked-out workers and a spokesman of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s certainly what the workers are saying in the Mojave Desert right now, but that’s Johnny Cash singing “Won’t Back Down.” I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez. This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we go to California into the Mojave Desert mining town of Boron. It’s the site of the second-largest borax mine in the world and an unfolding labor struggle between some 600 workers, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 30, and the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto.

While the international news media are focused on the upcoming bribery trial of four Rio Tinto employees in China, half a world away, in southern California, workers at the Boron mine have been locked out of their workplace for nearly two months, after contract negotiations with Rio Tinto hit a stalemate. On January 30th, the workers rejected a contract proposal they said would scrap their seniority system and allow the company to hire more non-union employees. In an article for The Nation magazine, author Mike Davis described the company proposal as, quote, “Rio Tinto, in essence, claims the right to rule by divine whim” and “to blatantly discriminate.” The day after workers turned down Rio Tinto’s proposal, the world’s third-largest mining company proceeded to lock out Boron’s 570 union workers and brought in temporary replacements.

AMY GOODMAN: We invited the Rio Tinto’s US spokesperson, Susan Keefe, on the program, but we didn’t get a response. She told Reuters last month the mine had to, quote, “modernize its work practices” to keep up with the competition.

For more on the story, we go to two guests in Burbank, California. Terri Judd is one of the locked-out workers at Boron. She’s a third-generation borax miner and a US Army veteran. Craig Merrilees is the spokesman of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Terri. Describe what’s happening now. Remember, you’re talking to a global audience here who may not have even heard about Boron or the Boron mine. You’re locked out right now. What is the struggle all about?

TERRI JUDD: Our struggle is about this Rio Tinto, a foreign-owned company, basically coming in and, you know, trying to destroy our family life, trying to destroy our communities. They want to force us to, you know, work overtime when we’re not scheduled to work, forcing us to take part-time jobs and pretty much turning them in — or taking our full-time jobs and turning them into junk jobs. That’s primarily what our struggle is about.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And on the day that they locked you out, could you talk — because a lot of people don’t understand that. In essence, you were negotiating, and then the company wouldn’t let you back into work?

TERRI JUDD: That’s correct. They came up on the Thursday prior at our negotiating meeting and pretty much set a proposal down, said we either accept their proposals or they were going to lock us out. On Saturday the 30th, our union had an emergency meeting, and our union body pretty much rejected their proposals. So, on January 31st, which was a Sunday, I got up that morning, got my hard hat, went to work, showed up at 7:00 that morning to report for work, and the gates were locked. They told us they were not going to allow us in, to turn around and go home.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Merrilees, you’re a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. How did your union get involved with this struggle?

CRAIG MERRILEES: Well, these workers have really done an incredible heroic job, and it’s something that I think people felt compelled to support them. And the support they’re getting both within the International Longshore and Warehouse Union from the dockworkers, the warehouse workers, all over the West Coast, has expanded. And now people are responding across California and around the country and also around the world. They see what’s happening in Boron. They see the courage that these families have shown to stand up to a powerful corporation that’s behaving like a bully, trying to take advantage of families during a recession to do things that are really hurting not just the families themselves but entire communities across the high desert.

And, of course, it’s happening all over America and around the world, as more and more corporations are being disrespectful of people who are simply — want the chance to work hard, be paid fairly and, more than anything, be treated respectfully. And that’s why it’s so important that these folks are standing up. They’re doing it on behalf of everyone, not just the families there in Boron.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig, can you take us around the world with the company, with Rio Tinto? What’s happening in China, in Indonesia? This is not just one place that this is all happening.

CRAIG MERRILEES: Yeah, Rio Tinto is a global Goliath, and the workers there in Boron are the Davids in this struggle.

The company has operations that span the entire globe. And historically, the company has done business with some of the most repugnant regimes in world history. They collaborated with Francisco Franco’s Fascist Spain. They worked with the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. And more recently, they’ve been working with repressive, bloody regimes, working with military militias that have been repressing local citizens, and in some cases those military groups that they’ve been working with, and some say supporting, have engaged in murder and terrible forms of intimidation. There are currently struggles underway in Papua New Guinea, for example, where those residents had questions and concerns about the mining practices of Rio Tinto, and some of them paid for those criticisms with their lives. And those citizens have come forward and filed suit in US federal court.

So there are very, very serious human rights violations taking place across the globe, as well as positive responses from workers who see what Rio Tinto has been doing in their countries, see what the families are doing here in Boron to stand up. So, workers from South Africa, workers from Australia, workers from Turkey, workers from across Europe have come to Boron to show their solidarity and to let the families know that they’re not alone, that this is a problem that has become more than just about a small community in the Mojave Desert. It’s become a worldwide problem with corporations that are out of control and trying to take advantage of working families everywhere.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Terri Judd, you’re a third-generation borax miner. And this mine is one of the major sources of borax in the world for many other countries. Could you tell our viewers and listeners what is the borax used for? And what do you specifically do every day when you’re on the job?

TERRI JUDD: Well, specifically what I do, I’m a loader operator in the mine department. My primary job is I run a LeTourneau-1350 front-end loader, and I actually mine the ore out of the ground, load it into haul trucks to be sent to the crusher to the primary processing plants.

And borax is found — we primarily make borax and boric acid. Boric acid, you can find in any bug killer that you purchase over the counter. They use it in lumber to treat the wood we use on our houses now to prevent termite infestations. And borax itself is found in almost any product that you have in your home, from plastics to Corning, to the heat tiles on the space shuttle.

AMY GOODMAN: And your family? What does it mean to say you’re a third-generation borax miner?

TERRI JUDD: My grandfather, back in the late ’40s, moved from Picher, Oklahoma, packed up his family. Him and about three other families, they all came out to Boron, California to work at the borax mine. My grandfather retired there in 1975. He was a general mine manager. My father had worked at borax when it was still underground. He had left that and went to serve his country, spent twenty-six years in the Army. When he retired from the Army, he came back to Boron and went right back to work for US Borax. And, you know, I grew up there. You know, it’s kind of — you could say it’s in my blood.

AMY GOODMAN: And you? What do you do?

TERRI JUDD: I’m a loader operator. I’ve been working for Rio Tinto for thirteen years now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read from Mike Davis’s piece in The Nation, a really all-encompassing piece. In one paragraph, he says, “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.)” And it goes on from there.

Craig Merrilees, what is the union demanding right now?

CRAIG MERRILEES: Well, the most important thing is to help these families survive. The company needs to end the lockout and end it now. They’re really engaged in a form of economic terrorism. They’re trying to starve these families to death, starve them into submission. And to their credit, the families are standing up, and they’re saying this is wrong. This is the wrong kind of way to treat any worker, whether it’s here, whether it’s in South Africa. Wherever this company operates, they shouldn’t be using these kind of terrorism tactics against hard-working families. So the lockout needs to end now.

The response from people around the world has been incredible. And they’re stepping forward to help these families survive, because that’s the number-one strategy of the company: starve out these families. And the response from people around the country has been incredible to help them survive, help them live to fight another day. I think as Terri would say, as long as it takes, as hard as it gets, they’re going to stand another day. And so, the company should end the lockout immediately, and they should negotiate an agreement with families that makes sense for everyone. And there’s no reason there can’t be a reasonable solution here. That’s not the way the company is behaving at this point. It’s their way or the highway in this David-and-Goliath battle.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we just have a few seconds left. Could you tell us who are some of the key executives of this company, some of the key names responsible for this?

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

CRAIG MERRILEES: Well, we’ve heard about some of those people in China, who have just admitted that they engaged in bribery involving millions of dollars. The number-one CEO is Tom Albanese. He’s based in London, England. And Terri Judd and others will be going to the general shareholders’ meetings to talk with Tom Albanese.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there.

CRAIG MERRILEES: Terri will be going to Melbourne, Australia on the 22nd.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig, we’re going to leave it there.

CRAIG MERRILEES: And we’ll be there on the 15th in London, England to try —

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Merrilees, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and Terri Judd, third-generation borax miner.

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