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A labor dispute threatens to tear a Kern County mining town apart

The huge borax mine has sustained Boron and its culture for generations. But now the company is pushing for changes and talking about a lockout. A possible strike looms.

January 31, 2010|By David Kelly

Reporting from Boron, Calif. — For more than half a century F.O. Roe, a former Army drill instructor with a steady gaze and a poker face, has watched the fortunes of this sun-blasted town ebb and flow.

He's seen the 58 Freeway bypass and isolate the community, the steady exodus of the young as they seek their fortunes elsewhere and the increase in crime he attributes to newcomers from Los Angeles.

Each blow has staggered the Kern County town, but none has knocked it off its feet -- until perhaps now.

"I think if the cards are not played right on this, it could be what breaks the back of this little town and kills it," he said, as he sipped coffee in the back room of the Emporium, his general store.

A shadow has fallen over this close-knit community of 2,000 as fears deepen of a strike at the borax mine on the city's edge.

"The whole town is tied to that mine. Most of the people who live here now work at the plant," said David Liebengood, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 30, which represents the employees. "It has passed through generations."

But the days of generational job security may be over. Citing a 25% loss in its share of the global market, mining company Rio Tinto has spent the last five months trying and mostly failing to extract concessions from the union, including changes in the cherished seniority system.

The company now has threatened to lock out its roughly 600 hourly employees and bus in replacements as early as this morning.

Workers say it's all a thinly veiled attempt to break the union.

"I'm 55 and have been here for 32 years, and suddenly I feel like I have no security," said Larry Roberts. "If I knew this would happen, I wouldn't have come here in the first place."

Borax is to Boron what automobiles are to Detroit. The homely, grayish mineral is a key ingredient in just about everything -- detergent, surfboards, plasma televisions (it strengthens the glass screens).

It was once hauled out of Death Valley by mule. But when borax was discovered here in 1925, job seekers arrived from around the country, and built homes from rocks and empty ammunition cans -- whatever they could scrounge from the desert.

Barbara Pratt, 89, is director of the Twenty Mule Team Museum, a shrine to all things borax. She moved here at age 12 and lived in a yellow boxcar.

"We had to carve out the windows ourselves," she said, as she stacked little bags of borax in the museum gift shop, which has a wall devoted to Julia Roberts because parts of "Erin Brockovich" were filmed here.

Early on, town and mine became inseparable.

For any man willing to move his family to this harsh outpost about 30 miles from Mojave, the company offered a job for keeps.

"You had to really want to get fired," said retired mine worker Bob Emrich.

It's that bond between mine and town that makes the current tensions so hard for miners to accept.

The company once financed Little League teams, a public swimming pool, local museums. Managers, who now tend to commute from Palmdale and Lancaster, once lived alongside hourly workers.

"It was a good company town. We were all a big family," said Terry Dill, a former miner, as he ate breakfast recently at the K & L Corral diner. "Some of the women didn't like it at first because there was nothing to do, no place to shop and we were in the middle of nowhere. But the pay was good and once you got a job here, you had it for life."

Cracks in the relationship appeared during a 1974 strike, marked by rowdy pickets and some violence.

"The strike was like a civil war. It turned father against son, salaried workers versus those with hourly pay," recalled Dill, who found a job during the strike at a mine in Mountain Pass.

"I bet 50% of people moved out of town after 1974," he said. "It really hurt us."

The town's population has been dwindling ever since.

"Five years ago we had 290 students, and now it's 127," said Robert Kostopoulos, a teacher and assistant football coach at Boron High School, who comes from a long line of miners, back to his great-grandfather.

"The money the company makes is unbelievable. They know they could fill those jobs in a minute if there was a strike," he said. "At the end of the day, I don't think they care."

That seems to be the prevalent view. Signs all over town say, "We support the Borax miners. An injury to one is an injury to all."

One hangs in the window of Domingo's Mexican restaurant, an island of frenetic activity on the sleepy commercial drag. Locals say the business is so popular that patrons drop in from outer space, which is true. The place is a favorite of shuttle astronauts landing at nearby Edwards Air Force Base, who sometimes e-mail lunch orders before touching down.

Inside, sombreros, strands of plastic fish and a cigar-store Indian compete for space with autographed posters of military aircraft and astronauts. A toy train hauling borax and a toy shuttle chugs just below the ceiling.

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