March 29, 2010
Labor War in the Mojave
By Mike Davis
The biggest hole in California, with the exception of the current state budget, is Rio Tinto's huge open-pit mine at the town of Boron, near Edwards Air Force Base, eighty miles northeast of Los Angeles.
The Boron pit, which replaced an underground mine, produces almost half the world's supply of refined borates.
Once upon a time, there were several thousand mining communities in North America; perhaps fewer than a hundred still exist. Boron (unincorporated, population 2,000) is one of the survivors.
In last year's contract negotiations, Rio Tinto (the British-Australian multinational acquired its Boron facility, U.S. Borax, in 1968 and renamed it Rio Tinto Borax) stunned members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, ILWU, Local 30 (Boron), by demanding abolition of the contractually enshrined seniority system and the surrender of any worker voice in the labor process.
The company wants a contract that would allow it to capriciously promote or demote; to outsource union jobs; to convert full-time to part-time positions with little or no benefits; to reorganize shift schedules without warning; to eliminate existing work rules; to cut holidays, sick leave and pension payments; to impose involuntary overtime; and to heavily penalize the union if workers file grievances against the company with the National Labor Relations Board.
"The company's proposal," union negotiators emphasize, "would destroy our union, lower our living standards, and give Borax total control over our jobs." On January 30, Local 30 members unanimously rejected the concessions demanded by Rio Tinto.
The company deadline expired the next morning, when Terri Judd set off for work as usual with her lunchbox and thermos. At the locked front gate she and other day-shift workers encountered a phalanx of nervous Kern County sheriff's deputies in full riot gear. Inside the plant, an elite "strike security team" hired by Rio Tinto had taken control of operations.
"Being locked out," says Terri, "is different from going on strike. Initially there's disbelief that the company is actually serious about booting you out the door. Hey, my granddad worked in this mine. But then you see that caravan of scabs coming to take your jobs, and the betrayal cuts like a knife in your heart."
Comment: Empathetic souls will find the full version of this article to be very tough reading. When the 560 wage earners unanimously rejected the demands of Rio Tinto to give up much of their job security, the company terminated all of them in a job lockout. The impact on their small community of Boron is devastating.
Even though this story is not about health care, there is a very important health policy lesson here.
These people lost company support of their health benefits program at termination. With loss of their paychecks, many of these individuals are struggling to pay their rent and to buy food. Extension of health coverage through COBRA, even with subsidies, is of no benefit if they don't have the funds to pay for it.
And President Obama's promise of being able to keep the insurance you have if you want to? He left off the part that says you can keep it until your COBRA runs out, and at that only if you can pay your share (and all of the other reasons why hardly anyone still has the insurance they had twenty years ago, even if they wanted to keep it).
The policy lesson is that a health care financing system should be designed to cover absolutely everyone automatically throughout life. Individuals unfortunate enough to lose their jobs shouldn't be further penalized by losing their health care as well.