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Tess Vigeland: California’s most famous mineral is, or at least was, the gold in them thar hills. But dig a little deeper in the state’s high desert and you’ll strike borax. For the tiny town of Boron, the mineral that you probably know best as a laundry detergent is a way of life, home to one of the biggest borax mines in the world.
As Apryl Lundsten reports, it’s also now the site of a standoff between a powerful mining company and more than a quarter of the town’s residents, who work in the mine.
APRYL LUNDSTEN: Terry Judd has worked at the Rio Tinto Borax mine for 13 years. It’s just one piece of a multi-billion-dollar mining empire operated on six continents by the British company Rio Tinto Group. Judd runs a front loader in an open pit big enough to hold all the pyramids in Egypt. She scoops up piles of the chalky mineral and brings them up to the surface to be crushed.
TERRY JUDD: I love my job. I mean where else can I go and play with overgrown Tonka trucks, really?
On a recent Sunday, Judd arrived at the mine to find she was among 560 hourly workers locked out of their jobs.
JUDD: To go to work and to being told, “No you cannot come into work.” You know, it broke my heart.
It also was a big blow to the psyche of this town about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The history of Boron and the mine have been largely inseparable since a doctor drilling a well discovered borax in the area almost a century ago. Since the late ’20s, the borax unearthed from the mine has been a source of civic pride, turning up in enamel goods, fiberglass, cosmetics and even a popular detergent additive…
Borax commercial: 20 Mule Team Borax has been improved, not it’s Borateem…
Barbara Pratt moved to Boron from Oklahoma with her family in 1932. She was 12.
BARBARA PRATT: This was in the depth of the Depression, and this was one place where my dad could get a job.
Pratt, now 87, runs the Twenty Mule Team Museum. It features exhibits about the town, the mine, and the team of 18 mules and two horses that used to cart loads of borax out of the desert. She recalls her dad’s strong loyalty to the mine.
PRATT: My dad had emphysema so he got to a point where he really couldn’t work as a foreman anymore so they put him the same wages that he’d had. I don’t know how many companies would do that, but they did.
Now, with the lockout, Terry Judd says she’s not sure that kind of loyalty exists any more.
JUDD: You know, I have to say, I’ve lost confidence in the company itself.
Judd’s father and grandfather both worked for the mine. And she had plans to stay there until she retired. Now, she’s not sure. And she worries about the future of the community.
JUDD: By locking out their workers, the families in town, they’re losing money and when the families lose money, the community loses money.
The origins of the dispute stretch back to September when unionized workers at the mine began negotiating with Rio Tinto management on a new labor contract. Rio Tinto wants to change the union’s seniority-based promotion system. And it wants the right to hire non-union workers. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union said no. And in January, Rio Tinto locked out all union members. They’ve been replaced by non-union workers from other Rio Tinto facilities. The company has owned the mine for 40 years, and while there have been strikes in the past, this is the first lockout.
Bob DEAL: So these big balls go up and fall down and knock it loose…
Bob Deal is part of the mine’s management team. On a recent tour of the facility, Deal says he’s troubled by the standoff and hopes it’s resolved soon.
DEAL: I know a lot of people just by being here a long period of time, a lot of people that live in town. I feel I have a stake in the community.
But Deal says Rio Tinto needs labor flexibility to stay competitive. The company has lost 25 percent of its share in the global borax market, due in large part to competition from a government-owned mine in Turkey. Rio Tinto General Manager Dean Gehring says the company’s proposed changes to the labor contract would actually benefit the local economy.
DEAN GEHRING: The best way that we can preserve jobs here for the long term and make our business as successful as possible is to have this new contract, update our business, update our business practices. That’s going to preserve more jobs and help the community more than continuing to operate under the old contract.
For now, union leaders are digging in their heels. They’ve organized donation drives among the union’s 42,000 members around the country. And there are plans to send a caravan of cars and trucks from Los Angeles with $30,000 worth of food and supplies for the locked-out workers.
In Boron, Calif., I’m Apryl Lundsten for Marketplace.
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