BATTLE IN THE MOJAVE: Lessons from the Rio Tinto Lockout

It has been a difficult two years for the labor movement in the United States. The Obama election held out the promise of labor law reform and massive new organizing initiatives. Instead, there was no Employee Free Choice Act and the biggest organizing campaign in 2010 involved an internal dispute between the Service Employees International Union and the newly formed National Union of Healthcare Workers. In the absence of reform, and with our unions totally on the defensive, labor strategists and organizers are searching for a plan to move forward. The story of the ILWU’s battle against a lockout in the Mojave Desert a year ago is a contribution toward understanding the moment and the features of a labor counterattack.

The massive right-wing drumbeat— scapegoating public sector employees and demanding deep concessions—is a tune all too familiar to private sector workers. Some recent struggles are illustrative. A UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers Union) strike at a Shaw’s supermarket warehouse in Methuen, Massachusetts lasted for four months in 2010 after the employer attempted to impose a concessionary contract. The Mott’s strike in upstate New York a year ago lasted for almost four months after this highly profitable subsidiary of Dr Pepper/Snapple demanded harsh concessions, asserting that there was no need to pay higher wages in a depressed labor market. The Honeywell lockout of the Steelworkers in Metropolis, Illinois began on June 28, 2010 and continues to this day. The list goes on and on, day after day, and all these conflicts share one common feature: corporations that are on the attack against workers’ hard-won wages and benefits in longtime unionized workplaces. Our capacity to resist these concessionary demands, and to effectively conduct strikes and lockouts, is crucial to weathering this period of attacks and going on the offensive.

The ILWU Under Attack

Last year the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) confronted such an attack in Boron, California at the Rio Tinto Corporation’s borax mining facility—the largest borate mine in the world. The mine is located 130 miles from downtown Los Angeles, in the Mojave Desert. Boron’s Kern County community is a desolate, hardscrabble area where temperatures routinely exceed 125 degrees in the summer. Four hundred and fifty ILWU Local 30 members work at the mine. Last January, they were locked out of their jobs for 105 days. The mine is in the congressional district of Kevin McCarthy, an archconservative and now the Republican majority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. The majority of these ILWU members are Caucasian males with strong religious affiliations. Several of the worker-leaders are lay preachers, and many are Mormons.

Rio Tinto—which has been likened to the villainous mining company in the hit movie Avatar (which mines “unobtainium” on the planet Pandora)—is the world’s thirdlargest mining conglomerate, operating on six continents. The company’s origins go back to nineteenth-century Seville, Spain where the copper-mining process produced a rio tinto—a “tainted river.” The company evolved, through mergers and acquisitions, into a British-owned behemoth with headquarters in London and Melbourne. The Boron facility mines borates which are used in a wide variety of consumer products, including food stuffs and television screens! Twenty Mule Team Borax is a laundry additive and the advertising sponsor of Death Valley Days, which had been hosted by Ronald Reagan before he went into politics.

The ILWU’s history with the Boron miners dates back to the 1960s, when the company was still independently owned by U.S. Borax. Then, the miners were represented by the International Chemical Workers Union. In 1964, they decided to change their affiliation and join the ILWU. Rio Tinto acquired the U.S. Borax facility in 1967. In 1974, there was a six-month strike at the mine, which was violently suppressed by the company and the Kern County sheriffs. The level of violence was such that many management personnel moved out of Boron, the company town. Since then, labor negotiations with the ILWU have been contentious, but ultimately resolved without the shutdown of production.

In September 2009, the union and Rio Tinto opened negotiations in advance of a November 4, 2009 contract expiration date. It was clear from the beginning that the company’s objective was the complete evisceration of the labor contract. Rio Tinto wanted wholesale changes in the agreement that would destroy seniority, allow for contracting out large segments of the work and hiring temporary workers, and eliminate important strategic work from the bargaining unit. Bargaining became nothing but empty posturing as the countdown to November 4th began.

Seeing the writing on the wall, the ILWU began preparing for a long struggle. The union created a Contract Action Team (CAT) that was made up of over forty committed workeractivists. They were charged with communicating to their co-workers what was happening at the table, and mobilizing the workforce for rallies and demonstrations. As the union ramped up visible opposition to the employer’s concessionary demands, it became clear that the company’s position would not budge.

Prior to November 4th, the union made an important assessment—the company was waiting for a traditional economic strike and, in fact, would welcome it. Rio Tinto had security guards and scabs ready. It stockpiled inventory. Further, because the company typically shut down for two weeks during the Christmas holiday season, it was expecting the strike to coincide with a slow production period.

The ILWU had other ideas. The union decided it would not strike—rather, barring an acceptable agreement, the workers would continue to work without a contract.

Working Without a Contract: The Inside Game

ILWU leaders drew on their past experiences with working without a contract. Thousands of longshore workers continued working without an agreement, while aggressively challenging their employer, during the 2002 coastwise contract dispute that resulted in an employer lockout. The union further drew on the experience of the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) use of the “Inside Game” during the 1970s and ‘80s. UAW leader Jerry Tucker pioneered the Inside Game, teaching workers at the point of production that they could exercise power without a contract. While a contract gives workers a pathway to resolving disputes through the grievance procedure, it also strips them of their right to strike and engage in concerted protected activity on the shop floor. Without a contract, workers are no longer subject to these constraints and have new options and opportunities.

On January 10, 2010 (a Sunday) the ILWU conducted a daylong training, coaching CAT members on how to work without a contract while continuing to exercise their right to engage in strikes and other protected forms of mass action, both on and off the job. Each worker was asked to evaluate the strategic importance of his or her labor by answering the question: “What would happen if you stopped working?” This exercise gave workers a heightened sense of their crucial role in the production process.

Initially, the exercise was greeted with skepticism. The response of the first worker to introduce himself was: “I would be fired!” Soon, however, workers grasped that the company relied on their skills and job-specific knowledge to keep the operation humming. Participants in the training warmed to the idea that every minute of every day offered opportunities for workers not burdened with a contractual no-strike provision to hold spontaneous stop-work meetings to discuss grievances or other job-related issues. They could also march on the boss to present grievances or demand bargaining. Further, they could initiate short-term work stoppages over safety issues, grievances, or unfair labor practices. CAT members united around an understanding that they were going to draw the company offside, letting Rio Tinto make the first move, rather than walking out as part of a traditional economic strike.

The Lockout

The day after the Sunday training, workers at the mine started taking action—the whole shipping department marched on the department supervisor to challenge a unilateral change in staffing procedures. Similar actions were carried out over the course of subsequent days. On the 28th of January, Rio Tinto demanded that union members accept the company’s last, best, and final offer by midnight on January 31st—otherwise the employees would be locked out. The workers rejected the company’s proposal by a unanimous vote. The next day, Rio Tinto made good on its threat. On the morning of February 1st, union members and their families marched to the company gates carrying American flags and chanting, “We want to work!” They were met by a battalion of armed guards who kept them out, while escorting the scabs inside.

The battle was on, but the union successfully drew the company offside. By declaring a lockout, the company gave the union three key weapons for its arsenal. First, by virtue of being locked out, under California law the workers were eligible to collect unemployment insurance, which was vital to sustaining them and their families financially. Second, the lockout meant that solidarity among members was enforced, as nobody could cross the line and work even if they wanted to. Third, and most importantly, the company had cast the first stone, and in a time of economic desperation a British-owned corporation had decided to deprive American working families of their livelihoods—this became a talking point that resonated throughout the lockout.

A Comprehensive Campaign: The Three “M”s

It was clear that Rio Tinto was employing a strategy to starve out the families in Boron, betting that members would buckle under the stress of losing regular paychecks and health insurance, which had been cut off at the start of the lockout. In addition, Rio Tinto started a massive propaganda campaign, alerting the public of its “reasonable” economic offer and portraying union leaders as the villains. The ILWU knew that, in order to beat back the lockout and win a solid contract, it had to run a comprehensive campaign that fully engaged its locals up and down the West Coast. The major components of the union’s strategy were the three “M”s:

1. Message: Messaging was extremely important in the Boron campaign, particularly because Rio Tinto’s vast resources allowed it to take out weekly full-page ads in the local newspapers, calmly explaining its need to remain competitive, decrying the union’s “unreasonable” demands, and distorting the union’s position in the negotiations. The union’s message was simple and hard-hitting: it pitched this story as a David vs. Goliath battle. These were good family-supporting, working-class jobs that Rio Tinto was trying to destroy. The miners wanted to work, but they could not because they were locked out by a giant company that didn’t care about the local community. Children of the Boron miners wore T-shirts that said: “Give my Dad his job back.”

The ILWU carefully cultivated the public image of the fight as one in which blue-collar workers, their families, and their small, rural communities were aligned against a marauding, multi-billion-dollar, foreign-owned corporation. The union also was careful in crafting its message about what the workers were fighting for. For example, rather than trying to defend “seniority” rights, a commonly misunderstood concept among most members of the public, the union talked about respecting the rights of long-term, experienced workers who had committed years of their lives to the company. While a message employing the S-word would not have resonated with the public, one focused on loyalty and commitment did. Twenty local businesses were recruited to publicly support the locked-out workers. Restaurants contributed food to the picket lines, retailers provided discounts, and real estate firms consulted on mortgage protections. At a community appreciation night, these businesses were all honored by the union for their visible support of the locked-out workers.

The union decided early on not to carry picket signs, understanding that—no matter what you tell the press and the public—a picket sign is taken to mean: “STRIKE!” even if it is clearly lettered: “LOCKED OUT.” (The locked-out workers only used picket signs in rare instances, to deter union truck drivers and locomotive engineers from crossing the line.)

2. Money: To combat the company’s starvation strategy, the union moved quickly to establish an extensive fundraising program to meet the emergency needs of the locked-out workers and their families. The goal of this program was to ensure that no locked-out workers lost their homes or were evicted due to an inability to pay their mortgages or rents. In addition, health insurance (COBRA) bills were prioritized. This was, perhaps, the most difficult and potentially divisive challenge, as it entailed selecting a respected group of Local 30 members who would make decisions regarding the financial well-being of their co-workers. The union went all out, organizing a giant weekly food bank, a substantial donation of chickens from the UFCW, weekly community dinners, Easter baskets from another UFCW local, and a volunteer medical clinic to deal with the medical needs of members who had not been COBRA-ed. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor also leaped into action, pledging funds from its affiliates and sharing its expertise in managing food banks and emergency funds distribution.

3. Mobilization: Early on, international support was generated for the Rio Tinto workers. Turkish miners at a competing facility visited the bargaining table. The International Mining and Maritime Conference was held in Southern California’s Antelope Valley to coincide with negotiations, and delegates marched with the Boron Local members from the union hall to the pit mine. The Mining and Maritime Conference is a worldwide formation of unions in both the mining and maritime sectors that lend solidarity to each other’s battles with giant multinationals like Rio Tinto.


The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor moved immediately upon hearing of the lockout, organizing a caravan, “from the docks to the desert,” in support of the struggle. Four semi-trucks and 145 cars traveled 125 miles, from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to Boron on February 24th. This caravan, which captured the imagination of the Southern California media and public, was illustrative of the union campaign’s three “M”s. It emphasized the family-supporting-jobs message, brought food and material aid to the workers and their families, and mobilized the whole labor movement in support of the battle in Boron.

Subsequent mobilizations, nationally and internationally, focused worldwide attention on Rio Tinto’s conduct. On April 15th, workers and supporters marched at British consulates in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Salt Lake City. These rallies were planned to coincide with actions at Rio Tinto’s annual meeting in London and a later meeting in Melbourne, Australia. The ILWU sent Boron workers to both London and Melbourne, and in Melbourne the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) coordinated an event at which demonstrators donned Avatar costumes to dramatize Rio Tinto’s anti-worker, anti-environment stances.

Why Did the ILWU Win?

On May 15, 2010 the workers voted overwhelmingly, 275 to 95, to accept a new six-year labor agreement that had been negotiated after an intense week of marathon bargaining facilitated by a federal mediator. The agreement made one important concession to the company—allowing new hires to be enrolled in a 401(k) plan rather than the defined-benefit plan in which incumbents had been enrolled. However, on all the other issues—including eliminating seniority protections, opening the door to contracting out, and removing crucial classifications from the bargaining unit—the union held firm.

What factors forced Rio Tinto to settle? First, once it became clear that the company was going to be unsuccessful in starving the workers into submission and forcing a wholesale retreat (and collapse) of the union, Rio Tinto knew it would have to give in on some demands. Second, even though—over the preceding four months—the company, with its massive security and scab workforce, had succeeded in keeping the mine and processing facilities operating (albeit at 60 percent of normal productivity), Rio Tinto never wanted to run the facility without its skilled and semiskilled workforce. Many of the mine’s workers were third- and fourth-generation miners who had in-depth knowledge of the operations. In fact, the workers could tell what kind of production was taking place by observing the color of smoke emitted by the production facility’s smokestacks. In addition, Rio Tinto knew life in the Mojave Desert was not for everybody, and that recruiting hundreds of skilled, long-term employees would be a significant challenge.

Further, the union’s campaign had succeeded in demonizing the company nationally and internationally, and Rio Tinto’s attack on the workers in Boron was impeding its ability to wheel and deal. For example, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) put a hold on an important federal land swap in Arizona—which Rio Tinto needed to develop a massive copper mine—until the company negotiated a fair deal with the union.

The Lost Art of Strikes and Lockouts

In 1950, there were 424 work stoppages involving one thousand or more workers. In 2008, there were fifteen! In all of 2009 there were only 103 strikes of any size! Fear of capital mobility and permanent replacements means workers don’t exercise their most powerful weapon—the withholding of their labor. The impact of the labor movement’s reticence to conduct strikes is reflected in the massive union membership decline.

CIO organizer John Steuben’s seminal text—Strike Strategy, published in 1950 and deserving of study by all labor organizers—covers myriad issues surrounding strikes, with which the present-day labor movement has lost touch. Issues of timing—when to strike and for how long—are not meaningfully considered. The unfair labor practice strike is not examined as a legal option. The basic methodology of feeding and supporting a workforce out of work is not practiced and perfected. The art of working without a contract and pressuring companies from within has been lost. Labor leadership is flabby for lack of exercise and fear of disrupting the comfortable schedule of business unionism. And, perhaps most importantly, the labor movement has lost the concept of “swarming solidarity.” Central labor bodies—once charged with mobilizing labor forces in their geographic areas in support of striking or locked-out workers—have become principally tasked with political action work.

Back to the Basics: Swarming Solidarity

Our period is one of defensive battles. Every time these battles are lost, it sends out a widespread message that unions can’t defend their members and the union movement is dead. Conversely, when workers win these fights, confidence in labor grows and organizing becomes a bit easier because of the positive demonstration effect.

During the Rio Tinto lockout, the AFLCIO initiated a national campaign for good jobs. Marches were held in Washington, D.C. and on Wall Street. Meanwhile, across America good jobs were being destroyed by avaricious corporations in concessionary bargaining. One Los Angeles labor official told the national AFL-CIO that it made no sense to sponsor its national mobilizations unless and until the national federation took up the Boron fight in the Mojave. Here was a concrete and dramatic example of good jobs being destroyed, the official reasoned, and it was time for the labor movement to swarm to the defense of these workers.

Indeed, it is time for the U.S. labor movement to swarm to the hundreds of large and small confrontations that have such significant ramifications for the movement’s future. The Rio Tinto workers benefited from such an approach—let this victory serve as a positive example for other, similar battles.

Union leaders search for large-scale organizing campaigns that, if successful, could spark a resurgence. They hunt for ambitious, winning campaigns that could come to symbolize the rebirth of labor. Rather than identifying and building on the existing struggles of the organized working class, their strategies are always cast as “new” organizing campaigns. It’s time to recognize that winning defensive battles like Boron is the key to labor’s renaissance. The following list (representing only a partial roadmap) of major 2011 contract expirations is a line-up of private sector battlefronts that should showcase what workers, united in a union, can accomplish (this list doesn’t touch on the numerous public sector agreements expiring in 2011):

• Southern California Grocers—70,000 workers

• Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers—12,000 workers

• General Electric—48,000 workers

• General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, and Delphi—145,000 workers

• Boeing—28,000 workers

• U.S. Postal Service—262,000 workers

• Verizon—65,000 workers

Let’s proceed from the existing struggles of the U.S. working class. Let’s fight like hell to win those struggles—and thousands of others in workplaces, large and small—to show the world “there is power in a union.” Our future lies in the balance!

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