Mine Workers at Rio Tinto Break 15-Week Lockout

On May 15th, 570 families at Rio Tinto’s massive mine in Boron, CA won their hard-fought struggle to break a 15-week lockout and protect good jobs. By a 75% margin, ILWU Local 30 members approved a new contract with guaranteed raises, a $5,000 bonus, protection for full-time jobs, retention of seniority, and removal of all scabs from their workplace.

According to Terri Judd, a single mother, Desert Storm veteran, and heavy equipment operator:

Most of us are happy to be going back to work, earning our paychecks, and doing the jobs that we love. We’re going back with our heads held high, but we’re also guarded about dealing with a company that locked us out.

Judd’s concern about Rio Tinto was well founded. The company is a global goliath with assets estimated at $150 billion and profits last year of nearly $5 billion. They also have a reputation for playing hardball with unions in the U.S. and around the world. The company has also racked-up a notorious human rights record that goes back to fascist Spain, involvement with South Africa’s Apartheid regime, and engaging in alleged human rights violations New Guinea that sparked a lawsuit that’s pending in U.S. federal court.

Local 30 members won their fight with this corporate bully through a combination of internal unity and external solidarity that included support from unions around the world. Innovative tactics included recruiting dozens of local business leaders who called on Rio Tinto to end the lockout, creative events like a “Docks to the Desert Caravan” on February 24th that included four big-rigs and hundreds of cars coordinated by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and militant mobilizations in April with actions at six British Consulates (Rio Tinto is British-based) across the country, appearances at the company’s shareholder meeting in London, legal action, and a legislative strategy with leverage points that squeezed the company financially.

Solidarity included support from many domestic and dozens of foreign unions, plus the national AFL-CIO, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and the California Labor Federation, which invited Local 30 member Dave Irish to speak before nearly 700 delegates at the Federation’s annual Legislative Conference in Sacramento. Irish, who operates heavy equipment, said he scored points with building trades members when he talked about the massive vehicles he and his co-workers operate at California’s largest open-pit mine. Irish reported that his 5-minute talk generated contributions from unions, including SEIU Local 1000 that contributed $10,000 to help the locked out families.

The solidarity, actions, and leverage made it possible to reach a tentative agreement with Rio Tinto in the early morning hours of May 14th, after a final week of intensive negotiations. The agreement was somewhat unexpected, because the company had refused to negotiate after locking workers out on January 31, and stayed away until April. The lockout itself began after workers refused to sign an ultimatum demanding 81 contract concessions, including:

  • Converting full-time jobs into part-time, temp positions with skimpy benefits
  • Authority to cut employee pay at any time for any reason – or no reason at all.
  • Eliminating seniority and allowing discrimination, favoritism, and nepotism.
  • Allowing management to pick and choose who would or wouldn’t get raises.
  • Giving management unlimited power to outsource and subcontract work.
  • Declaring parts of the plant to be “non-union” where workers had no union rights.

The new six-year agreement protects workers from the worst of the company’s attacks and includes guaranteed annual wage increases of 2.5 percent. The new agreement will also:

  • Limit outsourcing by requiring full utilization of all workers and machines before any work goes outside.
  • Retain seniority protection for shifts, layoffs, and vacations. Transfers and promotions will remain subject to seniority for workers with relatively equal qualifications.
  • Expand opportunities for overtime while reducing coercive, mandatory overtime.
  • Provide a 401(k) savings plan for all new hires.

ILWU Local 30 President Dave Liebengood:

Local 30 members deserve the credit for sticking together and fighting for the best agreement we could get from a company that wanted to destroy our union. We didn’t get everything we wanted, and we had to make some compromises, but the final contract was a real victory for us.

A victorious outcome was far from certain in the minds of many workers when the company locked them out.

Member Kim Evans expressed the views of many:

When we first got locked out I thought there was no way in heck we would win this. But we had so many people that showed up out here. I grew up out here, but for other people it’s a shock—a little tiny desert town that looks like it would blow away… The Teamster trucks brought us $30,000 worth of groceries and then another $20,000, so we had a food bank.

Food and financial contributions continued to roll into help Local 30 families. Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Southern California delivered hundreds of Easter Baskets to families and helped secure groceries for the families at discounted prices. UFCW Local 8 in Sacramento donated 3,500 pounds of chicken. Members of ILWU Local 17 collected enough donations to buy and deliver 2,000 pounds of rice.

Local 30 President Dave Liebengood said the financial support from unions kept the families in the fight by putting food on the table and keeping bill collectors at bay.

Darrell Nichols was typical of many Local 30 members who stepped up and took on new responsibilities during the lockout. Before it was over, he had served on the Contract Action Team (CAT), as a Gate Captain, and member of the Emergency Support Committee that allocated funds to families in financial distress. And that’s all besides his duties as a local pastor.


The support we got from our community and from around the world was unbelievable. It’s just amazing when you come from a little town like we do. It was really mind-blowing to see all the unions donating food and money to help our families because it showed everyone that people really do care about each other. I learned that if you stick together and you have a common goal, you’ll come out OK. I’ve seen our union fall apart before, but this time we stuck together, and we did it.