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Union dispute pits town against corporation

February 1, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
A bitter labor dispute is happening at a massive open-pit mine in the California desert. Hundreds of workers have been locked out, and the economic futures of a small town and a major corporation could be at stake. The owner of a borax mine says it's losing business as a result of a contract battle. Locked out workers are losing paychecks. The Mojave Desert town of Boron, some 75 miles from Los Angeles, is losing a lot of revenue. The dispute that shows no signs of ending soon.

It's one of the largest borax mines in the world. But Monday, it's no longer operated by the workers who've been there for decades, but instead by replacement workers brought in over the weekend.

This is because the company, Rio Tinto Borax, and the workers' union, ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) Local 30, can't come to an agreement. That leaves more than 500 workers without a paycheck.

"What I'm asking for is, I just want to go to work," said Mitch Nakaahiki, who's worked at the mine for 30 years. "I don't think that's too much to ask."

And Nakaahiki, like many workers, is unwilling to go to work if forced to accept massive changes to the current contract -- changes that, he says, include downplaying the role of seniority and the potential loss of full-time jobs.

"We're not getting treated fair, and to take things away from us that we've already established here, I think that is pretty bad," said Nakaahiki.

The mine's general manager acknowledges the proposed contract does include big changes from the current one.

"The contract that's existed here for years and continues to get more and more complicated doesn't work in a mining environment. The contract language we've proposed is common around America for mining facilities and works quite well," said the mine's general manager, Dean Gehring.

So how long could this labor dispute last? Officials on both sides say a lot of it has to do with how effective the replacement workers are.

"The people we've brought in are skilled Americans from all over the U.S. that were currently unemployed and they're happy to be here," said Gehring.

And if those workers are successful, they could be here for quite some time.

Union workers say they're willing to wait it out.

"I'm going to try to stay here because my grandkids live here, and if I have to drive all the way to Bakersfield to find a job, I'll probably go to Bakersfield, or wherever I have to go," said Nakaahiki.