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Borax mine workers locked out in labor dispute

After union members at the Rio Tinto mine in Kern County overwhelmingly reject a contract offer that would have changed seniority rules, the company brings in replacement workers.

February 01, 2010|By David Kelly

The giant Rio Tinto Borax mine in Boron locked out about 540 hourly workers Sunday after the employee union refused to ratify a new labor contract.

The lockout began at 7 a.m. as miners showed up outside the gates and were told they couldn't come in. Replacements were brought in to do their jobs.

"It's obviously a drastic measure and I am well aware of the fact that this has very real consequences to our employees. It's not a bully tactic, but it's our only real alternative," said Dean Gehring, general manager of the mine.

"We cannot continue operating with this threat of a strike hanging over our head," he said. "I pray this will go fast, but I'm preparing for it to go long."

The Boron operation is the largest open-pit mine in California and the second largest borax mine on Earth. The Kern County community and the mine have been closely tied for generations, but increasing labor tensions have threatened to sever those bonds.

Many residents work at the mine and fear a strike or extended lockout could cripple the city of 2,000.

"I think it will be pretty traumatic," said Jim Freeman, 54, who has worked at the mine for 31 years. "I think the company had the impression we were going to roll over and let them feed us the poison."

Rio Tinto, a London-based mining giant with operations on five continents, has been negotiating with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 30, which represents the employees, since September. The company says it has lost 25% of its global borax share and needs to make changes to stay competitive.

It has offered the union a 2% wage increase, an annual performance bonus, a $4,000 signing bonus and 80% coverage of healthcare costs. In return, Rio wants to hire more nonunion employees and, more importantly, change the seniority system so that it can promote people based on skill and performance rather than just years of service. The company threatened a lockout if there was no deal by Sunday.

"We are asking for a lot of changes and we know that," Gehring said. "Some employees think the flexibility we are looking for will take away seniority."

He added that running the business with a contingency workforce means the company will not be negotiating "any time in the near future."

The union says the proposed seniority changes will lead to nepotism.

Members met Saturday night to discuss the proposals.

"After hours of analyzing and evaluating the contract, every one of the 500 workers at the meeting voted no," said union spokesman Craig Merrilees. "The contract would allow the right to discriminate and practice cronyism when it comes to deciding who gets a raise, who gets overtime and who gets training opportunities."

Workers spent much of Sunday organizing committees to ensure locked-out employees have enough food and basic necessities for the days or weeks ahead. Calls have come in from around the state offering donations, officials said.

"People here are tough and willing to see this through to the end," Merrilees said. "It's not just about Rio Tinto but all the companies doing this to people across the country. In this little town people are drawing the line."

david.kelly@latimes.com

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