Truckloads of Solidarity for Locked-Out California Borax Miners
It’s day 58 of the miners’ lockout in Boron, California, in the harsh desert of Kern County. From the pews to the union halls, the coffee shops, and schools, the town has galvanized into a community driven for its very survival.
Back on Day 35, a Saturday morning, more than a hundred members of the California School Employees (CSEA) came to town. They gathered at the union hall of Longshore (ILWU) Local 30 and together with the locked-out families marched to the front gate of Rio Tinto’s open pit borate mine.
The miners held American flags to remind the British and Australian owners of Rio Tinto that they are on U.S. soil. As they reached the padlocked gate, miners and school employees together begin to chant, “We want to work!”
Once rarely heard in California but now all too familiar, the chant was heard by the anxious security guards but not by the Rio Tinto board of directors far away. The company had given the 560 miners an ultimatum: cave or be locked out. That happened on January 31 at 6:59 a.m.
The company wanted to gut the union contract: ending pensions for new hires, making seniority a dead letter, forcing overtime, and allowing management to cut pay, make jobs part-time, and outsource anyone’s job at any time.
To the west sits another town, Arvin, where the filming of John Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath" took place. Boron, like the fictional Weedpatch Camp, is already evoking similar images, not so much for the bitterness over the lock-out but for the kindness and concern that the town of Boron is showing over the fate of a quarter of its 2,000 citizens.
At Crain’s Market, Kim Chong Su contributed cake mix to make six large trays of cake for the visiting CSEA supporters. Other church groups have had food drives.
Rose Fowlkes works at the K & L Café. She says they often bring food and coffee to the miners, both at the hall and at the gate. Her husband Mike Fowlkes has made boric acid for four years.
Miner Kevin Martz’s wife, Kayla, collected $4,000 for childcare of miners’ small children with her church group. In another case, a call made from the pulpit immediately provided a dozen part-time jobs from the community.
“Our jobs are tied to the community and our schools,” Martz said at the rally. “Taking away our right to schedule shifts would mean we wouldn’t be able to honor commitments to volunteer and coach after school hours.”
SOLIDARITY AND GROCERIES
The community’s refusal to be cowed into submission has captured the attention of organized labor in California. The response has been compelling.
On February 16, a conference of mining and maritime unions from around the world took place in Palmdale, a few miles south of Boron. Delegates from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Turkey, and the European Union marched to the locked gates of Rio Tinto—a company many had confronted in their own countries.
A week later a caravan of more than 200 cars made a journey into town. Four big rigs, driven by the Teamsters, pulled trailers loaded with $32,000 of food and sundries from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
When the caravan eased into the desert town of Mojave, locked-out family members stood on overpasses holding welcome signs. Cheering men and women from Local 30 lined the streets alongside the union hall. By the time the cars reached the locked front gate, the caravan had grown to 350 vehicles.
The mine is operating with replacements from out of state, brought in daily on buses with darkened windows, but production is said to be a fraction of former output. The NLRB is investigating charges that the lockout is illegal, but the union is focused on mobilizing support in California and around the world to win the fight.
Tax-deductible checks can be made out to “Labor Community Services” with “Boron Lockout” in the memo portion. Mail to Labor Community Services, 2130 W. James M. Wood Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90006. Read Local 30's updates here.
Slobodan Dimitrov is a photographer in L.A.