Film: How Miners Beat a Lockout
“Locked Out” is a fast-paced story of a workers’ victory in the face of what looked like insurmountable odds. It’s exactly the message that should be seen in union halls across the country and abroad—especially since employers are using lockouts more and more, from U.S. Steel at the Hamilton Works in Canada to the corn-processing lockout of the Bakery and Millers union at Roquette in Iowa.
Strategists at the highly profitable Rio Tinto mining company, one of the world’s largest with $150 billion in assets and 77,000 workers worldwide, thought it would be easy to impose the company’s will on 570 borax miners in the tiny, isolated desert town of Boron, California. They were wrong.
In this incredible David vs. Goliath story from last year, David won (though he took a few licks himself). The epic battle was captured by independent filmmaker Joan Sekler in a stunning film, “Locked Out.”
The story begins in fall 2009 when the miners’ union contract was about to expire. Rio Tinto’s take-it-or-leave-it offer put management in complete control of everything: drastically cutting workers’ pay, benefits and pensions, changing wages as they saw fit, using temporary workers as they saw fit, contracting out work as they saw fit, changing worker’s hours and days off as they saw fit, taking away all veterans’ benefits, and much more.
Management gave the workers a January 31 deadline to accept the proposal. Rio Tinto is the major employer in the area, and the well-being and survival of the town depends on those who work at the mine.
Sekler’s camera was at the miners’ emergency meeting January 30. The room was packed and the atmosphere tense. Local President David Leibengood called the company’s proposal “an illegal contract.”
Member Larry Roberts summed up the choices: “The company is counting on your fear and insecurity. But that’s what you’ll have every day with this contract.” The miners voted overwhelmingly to reject. The next day, Rio Tinto locked them out.
When hundreds of miners and their families went to the front gate of the mine every day to picket and protest, chanting, “We want to work,” Sekler was there. She filmed the buses with darkened windows, filled with scabs, and the security guards and police who ushered them in and videotaped picketers constantly.
Bad Reputation Everywhere
Miners and their spouses started doing research on Rio Tinto. They learned the company had mines on six continents and that it mined gold, diamonds, coal, copper, iron ore, and uranium. They also learned that Rio Tinto had a bad reputation nearly everywhere.
Sekler highlights the company’s sordid history in “Locked Out,” beginning with its use of slave labor in Spain during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. She shows the role of Rio Tinto in arming a military force in Papau New Guinea that killed upwards of 15,000 people who protested a mining operation there because it destroyed their land and stole the land’s mineral wealth.
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Much of what the Boron miners did is common in well-planned strikes or lockouts, but it’s not usually captured on film. Miners, their spouses, and their children volunteered for committees for picketing, outreach, media, food distribution, and emergency financial issues. They went to small businesses in the area to put up window signs that read: “We support the families at Borax/Rio Tinto. An injury to one is an injury to all. ILWU.” Sekler shows all these committees in action.
We also see the tremendous support from other unions. The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor collected food and loaded tractor-trailers that Teamster members drove to Boron. Support rallies were held in Boron, Los Angeles, London, and Australia. The media committee set up a website (boraxminers.com) and a newsletter, “The Sagebrush Telegram.”
As the lockout wore on with untrained scabs, production at the borax mine declined substantially. Executive Board member Kevin Martz told me the miners were in a good position because their mine was Rio Tinto’s only borax mine. Borax is used in cleaning products, glass, building materials, fertilizer, and high-definition televisions, and is usually a profit-maker.
Finally, the tide turned. After 107 days, members of Local 30 agreed to a contract that preserved nearly everything they had achieved in previous contracts and gave them 2.5 percent wage increases every year.
There was one shortcoming: New workers would get 401(k) plans with a company match instead of pensions. Martz said members knew it was the right thing to do to keep everyone in the best plan, but after 107 days, they were afraid that to hold out for a defined-benefit plan for everyone would have kept them out much longer. It didn’t help that in most other industries, unionized workers had already given in to 401(k) plans.
Yet, overall, this struggle was a big victory not just for the Boron miners. What looked like a lopsided fight by a small group of isolated miners turned into a fight by thousands of supporters in various parts of the world.
“Locked Out” shows that when workers support each other across unions, industries, and national boundaries, they multiply their strength and are a formidable force to reckon with.
To order a DVD, go to www.lockedoutmovie.org.
Paul Krehbiel lives in Los Angeles and did solidarity work during the lockout.