Rio Tinto vs. Working-Class Mormons

By K. Jorgensen

Mormon workers in Boron, California played a key role in winning a labor struggle after being locked out by Rio Tinto, a multinational mining corporation, for almost four months. The workers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 30, operate the largest borax mine in the world. Over 560 workers were locked out.

After the union’s contract had expired on November 4th of last year, negotiations were held to draw up a new contract. Rio Tinto, seeking concessions from the union members, proposed a contract that would have reduced benefits, scrapped the seniority system, allowed full-time jobs to be converted to part-time with little or no benefits, and opened the worksite to non-union employees by outsourcing jobs. The union rejected this proposal and the negotiations came to an impasse. When workers showed up for their shifts early on January 31st, they found a line of Kern County sheriff deputies who threatened them with arrest if they tried to enter the worksite.

The lockout deeply affected Boron, a small town of about 2,000 people in the Mojave Desert. Borax mining has been a major industry in the area since the 1920s and continues to be an important part of the local economy. The mine has been owned by Rio Tinto since 1968 and is the largest open pit mine in California, and the largest borax mine in the world. Borax is used in many common products such as household cleaners, fiberglass, and display screens. The lockout made the people of Boron choose sides as they saw Rio Tinto’s proposal as a threat to the vitality of their community. Most people stood in support of the union members and showed their solidarity during the struggle by donning union t-shirts and giving generously to those who were locked out.

Standing up against Rio Tinto is not something to be taken lightly. Rio Tinto is the third largest mining company in the world and has headquarters in London, England and Melbourne, Australia. The company is well known for their disregard for human and worker rights and environmentally destructive practices. Historically, they have done business with fascist Spain under Franco and apartheid South Africa, and more recently they have been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the people of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In the latter two places popular opposition to destructive environmental practices prompted Rio Tinto to financially support brutal military regimes that, in return, supplied military defense to protect Rio Tinto mines. Even during the recession Rio Tinto continues to be “profitable” pulling in $4.9 billion net profits last year. Yet, when questioned at a shareholders meeting in London about the need for the lockout in Boron, the senior executives repeatedly spoke about the need to “modernize the workforce” which essentially means destroying worker solidarity and union jobs.

Rio Tinto is right about the “modernizing” trend in the workforce and the recession has given employers an excuse to take back any modest gains that have been won by unions. Union membership in the U.S. has been declining for over 30 years. Getting through the lockout with a decent contract and the union intact should be seen as a bright spot in the struggle for good jobs. This is especially true in the private sector where there are less union jobs than in the public sector despite there being five times as many total private sector jobs.

While Rio Tinto attempted to starve the workers of ILWU Local 30 into submission, people in the community and from around the world rallied to the defense of the workers. Because the corporation has wreaked havoc on people and their environments around the globe, they have also spawned movements against them in almost every place they operate. The small-town union local was able to mobilize many supporters at demonstrations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Boston, Vancouver, and London. Workers from South Africa, Turkey, New Zealand, and Australia who have faced similar battles with Rio Tinto visited Boron and showed up on the picket line. The AFL-CIO assisted union members with healthcare costs and groceries and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor organized a 150 car caravan that they called “From the Docks to the Desert” to deliver $30,000 worth of food on four teamster big rig trucks. This support sustained the energy and enthusiasm of the union members until they eventually voted on and signed a favorable contract with only a few concessions and returned to work on May 24th after almost four months.

Among those that stood up against Rio Tinto for jobs with dignity were many Mormons.
Bishop Brady Martz of the local North Edwards Ward spoke in support of the union workers at a meeting held on the first day of the lockout and continued to be a supportive force throughout the lockout. Two of the ten union members on the contract negotiation team were Mormon and several others were involved in actions and rallies. Kevin Martz, who has recently been elected to the executive board of Local 30, went to Los Angeles and spoke at a rally outside the British Consulate to 1,000 supporters. He was also part of a delegation from the union that went to the Labor Notes Conference in Detroit, Michigan where they were presented with the 2010 Troublemakers Award for their work. His wife Kayla coordinated with ward members to give $4,000 worth of child-care to locked-out miners with young children.

A frequent theme in current Mormon discourse is the idea that the family is under attack. It doesn’t take much digging to see that these assaults are carried out by corporations such as Rio Tinto, who have shown quite literally that they are willing to attack families, and by governments who cater to the interests of these mega-corporations. In recent years financial companies that schemed and traded ever-more esoteric derivatives have negatively affected millions of families. Massey Energy put profits before human life and knowingly sent employees into unsafe mines resulting in deaths that leave families fundamentally changed. BP has drilled for oil recklessly, cut corners in the construction and maintenance of wells, and created one of the worst environmental disasters in history. How do we respond to these extremely well-funded organizations that threaten the very life of our planet?

What happened in Boron is a good example of what can be done when facing threats from such massive organizations, the Goliaths of our day. During the lockout, many members of the church recognized the importance of good jobs to their families and communities and realized that Rio Tinto was trying to make those jobs less secure. Without job security, health insurance, and other benefits, there would be little time for workers to be actively involved in their families or as volunteers in their wards and in the community. They then banded together with others in the community to take a stand for the right to have jobs that offer these assurances.

Mike Davis, in his article on the Boron labor struggle that was published in The Nation magazine, calls working-class Mormons “the least understood social group in the American West.” Most people probably do not realize that members of the church are particularly well equipped to withstand the threats that these corporations pose to families and communities. The organization of the church allows it to respond well to all sizes of catastrophes from personal difficulties to large-scale disasters. Leaders of the church have long encouraged members to accumulate a year’s supply of food in case of hard times and many have heeded this call. The church welfare system with Bishop’s Storehouses and canneries gives Mormons a safety net to fall back on during difficult times. Perhaps most importantly, they are part of a local and global network of service-minded people who have committed to support each other and bear one another’s burdens. This type of solidarity is frequently expressed in small and simple ways every day throughout all congregations of the church.

We are in the midst of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. The 1930s were very difficult years for many people but were also a time for workers to come together to counter the greed of the speculators and monopolies that had led the country into depression in the first place. By 1940, after a decade of steady organizing activity, the percentage of workers that were union members had grown to 27.6%. In 1930, at the beginning of the depression, only 12.3% of workers were union members. We face a similar situation today. In fact in 2009, at the beginning of the recession, 12.3% of workers were union members. By taking courage from the struggle in Boron, let us help others understand what working-class Mormons can accomplish as we confront the greatest challenges of our day together.