LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Labor groups rallied on Wednesday to support the cause of nearly 600 California workers locked out from the world’s second-largest borax mine in a contract dispute with global minerals giant Rio Tinto.
The miners from the remote desert town of Boron, 75 miles north of Los Angeles, were shut out of their jobs on January 31 after five months of labor negotiations hit a stalemate.
The workers, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 30, rejected a contract proposal they said would scrap their seniority system and allow the company to hire more nonunion employees.
Union leaders say the offer by Rio of a 2 percent wage hike plus bonuses was merely a smoke screen for drastic concessions in a region already hit hard by high unemployment.
“The company says ‘We’ll give you a wage increase, but we’ll send your job to a temp agency,’” union spokesman Craig Merrilees said of Rio’s proposal.
Rio spokeswoman Susan Keefe denied the company sought to replace its work force with temporary or part-time workers.
But she said the mine had to “modernize its work practices” as it faced competition that has cost the company 25 percent of its global market share of borax during the past two decades.
For now the company has relying on salaried staff, workers brought in from other Rio sites and contract replacements to keep the mine running in 12-hour shifts, she said.
Southern California labor leaders seized on the lockout as a David-versus-Goliath case of corporate greed, casting Rio as a rapacious, foreign-based company taking advantage of tough economic times to extract harsh demands from hundreds of workers in a hardscrabble town of 2,000 people.
“We’re American workers. We won’t be treated like a Third World country,” Michael Davenport, 39, one of the locked-out miners, shouted at a Los Angeles rally.
Hundreds of labor activists from more than a dozen unions assembled near the Los Angeles Dodgers’ baseball stadium to launch a caravan of cars and trucks hauling donated food and American flags to Boron for the miners and their families.
The largest open-pit quarry in California, the Boron mine has long been the source of nearly half the world’s supply of refined borate minerals used in fiberglass, detergents and ceramics. The only deposit larger is mined in Turkey.
Rio, the world’s No. 3 mining company with net profits of $6.3 billion in 2009, put its borax business up for sale last year but recently took it off the market. Keefe said demand last year was down 30 percent.
The original U.S. Borax company traces its roots to California’s Death Valley, where deposits were discovered in 1872. The image of 20-mule teams hauling the mineral out of the desert became an icon for the brand that sponsored the “Death Valley Days” television series, hosted by Ronald Reagan.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Chris Wilson