Workers Vanguard No. 956

9 April 2010


ILWU: Don’t Handle Scab Borax!

For International Labor Solidarity with Locked-Out Boron Workers

Correction Appended

Nearly 600 workers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 30, are in a battle against a massive union-busting offensive by the giant Rio Tinto mining conglomerate at the U.S. Borax mine in the small Mojave Desert town of Boron, California. The Borax miners have been locked out for over two months as the company aims to enforce a contract that would allow it to hire non-union labor; to cut wages whenever it wants; to slash full-time jobs and turn them into part-time positions with little to no benefits; to rip up work rules and reorganize work hours, assignments and shifts at its whim; and to impose mandatory overtime. The Boron mine produces about half of the world’s borax, which is used in numerous products like soap, fertilizer and, most importantly, many types of glass. Hundreds of scabs and security thugs from J.R. Gettier & Associates, hired by Rio Tinto, are running operations at the mine, producing scab borax.

The Boron miners’ fight has evoked widespread sympathy and support from organized labor in California and unions internationally from Australia to South Africa to Canada, many of which have been on the receiving end of strikebreaking, union-busting assaults by Rio Tinto. But the top leadership of the Boron miners’ own union, the ILWU, has not even stopped the processing of borax by ILWU members. Solidarity is more than a few fine words of support and donations of food and money. What is needed is the mobilization of labor action, most importantly through dockworkers, rail and other transport unions “hot-cargoing” (refusing to handle) scab borax!

It is not for want of solidarity with the Boron workers that workers at the privately owned Rio Tinto terminal on the docks in Wilmington, California, members of ILWU Local 20, are continuing to work scab borax. These ILWU members have been kept on the job by the union misleaders who bow in homage to the bosses’ laws banning hot-cargoing and other “illegal” labor actions, like building mass pickets that no scab would dare to cross. Having worked overtime to help get Obama elected to the White House, the labor bureaucrats are striving to maintain class peace for the Democrats. ILWU longshoremen and Local 20 processing plant workers told Workers Vanguard that scab borax is trucked from Boron into the Wilmington plant, where it is processed, loaded into containers and then trucked to other docks in the L.A. area and elsewhere.

In February, the Executive Board of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco passed a motion put forward by left-talking local bureaucrat Jack Heyman. Declaring the ILWU “has already pledged full support” (!), the motion calls on the International Dockworkers Council, an affiliation of dockworkers unions from around the globe, to demand that transport workers internationally refuse to handle scab borax. Real labor solidarity begins at home! It must start with hot-cargoing borax by the ILWU itself!

Among the labor officials praising the strategy of the ILWU tops is Ken Riley, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1422 in Charleston, South Carolina. Following a solidarity rally with Boron miners on February 16, Riley told Mike Davis (see “Labor War in the Mojave,” Nation, 29 March):

“The ILWU is doing a terrific job marketing Boron’s importance to the rest of the labor movement. Internationally, our unions understand that we have to organize the logistics chain, from producers to transport to distributor to retailer. This is a new model of power for the labor movement, like industrial unionism in the 1930s, but adapted to the reality of globalization.”

Publicizing a labor struggle is a first step. But the point is for labor to then stop the “marketing” of the borax mined by the scabs! Instead, the ILWU tops have substituted solidarity rallies and “moral witness” protests for coordinated action. Such tactics, far from a “new model,” are a well-worn losing strategy. No amount of public outcry can replace getting the bosses where it hurts: shutting down the flow of their products. Whether turning back Rio Tinto’s union-busting assault or organizing the unorganized in the ever-growing chain of world trade, what is needed is the kind of hard-fought class struggle through which the industrial unions were founded.

Rail workers from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLE) have refused to take their trains across the borax miners’ picket lines. But the purpose of the labor principle “picket lines mean don’t cross” is to stop the production and shipment of scab goods. Instead, the BLE tops have allowed the trains to be taken across the lines by managers and then returned outside the mine, where BLE members transport the scab borax. According to ILWU workers, the scab borax is then transported to non-union docks on the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in Houston. There it is shipped out around the world to be offloaded and transported by other workers, many of them in unions which themselves are under attack by the shipping, mining and transportation industry magnates.

Fight the Bureaucrats’ American Chauvinism!

In this face-off with the world’s third largest mining company—with uranium, copper, coal, gold, iron ore, industrial diamond and other operations in 40 countries around the world—international labor solidarity is key. But this is undermined by the labor bureaucracy’s flag-waving American patriotism. The latest example is a leaflet by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor calling for a protest picket against Rio Tinto at the British Consulate in L.A. on April 16 (protests are also planned in San Francisco and Seattle). The leaflet, done up in red-white-and-blue, declares: “A British-owned company wants to starve our workers into submission.... Together we will send a message... You can’t starve out AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL.”

This is nothing more than an alibi for America’s capitalist rulers, who are the authors of union-busting and the soaring joblessness, hunger and poverty of the masses of workers, blacks and immigrants in this country. In competition with its imperialist rivals for ever-greater profits, the aim of the American bourgeoisie is indeed to pummel workers all over the world into submission to their interests. And the bureaucrats, who preach the lie of a partnership between the workers and their “own” exploiters, particularly expressed in chaining the unions to the Democratic Party, have long served as the handmaidens for the resulting destitution. Now they portray the fight against Rio Tinto in Boron not as a class-struggle fight of the working class against the capitalist class enemy but rather as a defense of America against a “foreign-owned company.”

Such chauvinism easily slides over into blaming foreign workers for “stealing American jobs.” It is poison to international working-class solidarity and serves only to foment the racist and ethnic hostilities that have been so ably wielded by the U.S. rulers to keep the working class divided. It is in this same vein that Rio Tinto cites the lower wages of Turkish borate miners, whose union sent a delegation to Local 30 in support of the locked-out miners, as a rationale for its union-busting in California.

There is no question that Rio Tinto has a long and savage history. But American-owned companies, backed by the military might of the U.S. imperialists, have inflicted their own ravages on the workers and oppressed of the world. Nor is it a big step from complaining about foreign-owned companies to supporting the U.S. ruling class in its trade wars against the other imperialist powers. The same logic has been used to justify lining up behind the U.S. imperialist bourgeoisie when trade wars exploded into military conflicts—such as World Wars I and II—the ultimate means for rival capitalist states to secure foreign markets and spheres of exploitation. It is the sons and daughters of the working class who have been and will be used as cannon fodder to fight for capitalist America against its foreign competitors.

Boron is a small desert mining town of some 2,000 people. But the whole history of Rio Tinto, a multinational conglomerate based in England and Australia, powerfully drives home that the workers’ fight is and must be an international one.

The company got its start in 1873, funded by British capital, to mine the Rio Tinto copper deposits in Spain. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, the head of the company, Sir Auckland Geddes, applauded General Franco for eliminating militant miners from its operations by executing them. This was merely par for the course for a company that has left a trail of broken unions, brutal repression of indigenous peoples, torture and death in its wake.

Between 1969 and 1972, an Australian subsidiary of Rio Tinto backed by the Australian government opened its copper mine on the island of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea (PNG). The indigenous peoples of the island were driven from their land. This brutal repression provoked an uprising that closed the mine in 1989. Bougainville’s population, which sought its independence from PNG, was then besieged by the PNG government, backed by the mining giant and the Australian Labor Party government. A ten-year military blockade was instituted, and at least 10,000 people were killed between 1990 and 1997.

In the 1970s, Rio Tinto opened its uranium mine in Namibia, which was then militarily occupied by the South African apartheid regime. A UN report at the time described the company’s operations there as being “mined by virtual slave labour under brutal and unsafe conditions.” In more recent years, continued apartheid-style segregation and racist discrimination against black workers at Rio Tinto in Namibia as well as its Pilabora copper mine in South Africa have provoked strike and wildcat actions by miners unions in both countries.

For years, Rio Tinto has carried out a union-busting offensive against workers at its Australian operations, which include uranium, iron ore and coal mines. Refusing to negotiate with the unions, the company offered workers individual contracts with higher wages if they quit the union. In 1995, the company’s declaration of war against striking workers at its Weipa bauxite mine led to coal miners and maritime workers shutting down the docks and pits in Australia for days. Aborigines, who had been driven off their land when the Weipa mine was founded in the early 1960s, joined the picket lines and formed a strike support group. The strike was also supported by the Bougainville Freedom Movement.

This powerful solidarity against Rio Tinto was demobilized by the Australian trade-union tops, who are guided by the same treacherous politics as their American counterparts: preaching the lie of a partnership between labor and capital, obedience to the bosses’ laws, reliance on the capitalist courts and flag-waving nationalism. A significant factor in the labor statesmen’s sellout of the Weipa struggle was their desire to defuse the situation for the benefit of the Labor Party in elections that year. The labor misleaders’ sabotage of the fight against Rio Tinto in 1995 helped pave the way for an all-out attack on the powerful Maritime Union of Australia three years later.

Similarly, a defeat for the Boron miners could be a body blow to the ILWU, which is increasingly the last bastion of union power in the West Coast ports. What is needed is an internationalist class-struggle fight based on the elementary understanding that the interests of the workers are irreconcilably counterposed to those of the bosses, whatever flag they fly under. Instead of the deadly trap of American patriotism, the workers should be guided by the words of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto: “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”

Lessons of the 1974 Boron Strike

A generation ago, in 1974, the bosses turned the Boron mine into an armed camp to smash a strike by the miners. In the course of the bitter 132-day strike, miners were arrested, shot at and viciously beaten. In the end, the strike was defeated at a cost of some 400 miners’ jobs. As we wrote at the time: “ILWU Local 30 was decisively smashed because the union failed to keep scabs from going in and out of the plant and failed to stop shipments of scab borax. This was despite the fact that ILWU longshoremen were doing some of the shipping. The company, U.S. Borax, achieved record production using salaried employees and scabs recruited from Los Angeles, San Diego and other cities” (WV No. 60, 17 January 1975).

At the time, the ILWU International was headed by the union’s founder, Harry Bridges, whose supposed tradition of class struggle is hailed today by the likes of Jack Heyman and other left-talking ILWU bureaucrats. In fact, the defeat of the Boron strike was seen by the American bourgeoisie as a big win for their side against a union with a lot of power that was not brought to bear. An article in the December 1974 issue of Fortune magazine made the defeat a model for union-busting bosses across the country, declaring: “A mine in the Mojave Desert might seem an unlikely place for a band of white-collar scabs to take a stand against a militant union. But managers, salesmen, and office workers, doing jobs they’d never done before, gave some refreshing lessons to top management.”

In the aftermath of the Boron defeat, employers at the small KNC Glass Company near Oakland, California, were emboldened to launch a union-busting attack on the plant’s workforce, which was organized by ILWU Local 6. The company did not prevail, thanks to Local 6 union militants, who were supported by Workers Vanguard. The union militants’ leaflet, demanding “Defend KNC Glass Strike! Mass Union Pickets Against Scabs! Don’t Handle Scab Goods!” brought an immediate response. A picket of 75-100 backed the company off its threat to bring in scabs. When it was learned that four truckloads of glass were bound for shipment from the Oakland docks to the plant, members of Teamsters Local 70 and ILWU Locals 10 and 34 refused to handle the loads. Local 6 bureaucrats later attempted to victimize the union militants.

As we wrote in “KNC or Boron—Victory or Defeat?” (WV No. 62, 14 February 1975):

“The union leaderships, including the ‘progressive’ Bridges regime in the ILWU, are committed to pro-capitalist business unionism which worships every letter of bourgeois legality. Under such leaderships, unions scab on each other (AFL-CIO craft unions crossed picket lines at Boron) and tamely they will submit to injunctions against mass picketing or proscriptions against ‘secondary boycotts.’

“The labor bureaucracy dooms the unions themselves to an ignominious end unless it is uprooted and replaced with class-struggle leadership.”

Today ILWU Local 6, which once organized many hundreds of warehouse workers in the Bay Area region, is little more than a shell. With the passive acquiescence of the ILWU tops, the majority of warehouse jobs were moved inland by the employers, where they are overwhelmingly non-union. This has contributed to the increasing isolation of longshoremen and left the ILWU smaller and weaker.

The Boron miners’ battle poses the vital necessity of reviving the unions as fighting organizations of the working class. The labor misleaders, complicit in the gutting of the unions, must go. The fight to replace them with a new leadership based on a program of class struggle is at bottom a political question. The starting point must be the unconditional independence of the working class from the capitalist class enemy and all of its parties and state agencies. The workers need their own party, an internationalist multiracial workers party that will aim to do away with the entire system of capitalist wage slavery. When the wealth of this country belongs to those whose labor produced it, the American working class can lead the fight for an international planned socialist economy that will rid the world of the depredations inflicted on the working and oppressed masses by the imperialist rulers. Victory to the Boron miners!


In the article “ILWU: Don’t Handle Scab Borax!” (WV No. 956, 9 April) we wrote, “A significant factor in the labor statesmen’s sellout of the [1995 Australian miners’] Weipa struggle was their desire to defuse the situation for the benefit of the Labor Party in elections that year.” Actually, the federal elections occurred on 2 March 1996. (From WV No. 959, 21 May 2010.)