Editor’s note: Local 1245 Business Rep. Bob Dean passed along this story by Tina Forde of the Tehachapi news, which concerns the current lock-out being perpetrated upon unionized employees by Rio Tino, a British-Australian mining concern. Dean is friends with one of the locked-out workers.
Tehachapi residents Dean Gehring and Jack Liebengood live a few miles apart in the Tehachapi Valley and both drive to work 42 miles away in Boron, perhaps passing each other on Hwy. 58 on the way there or back.
Once they get to Boron, their paths diverge.
Gehring goes into the Rio Tinto Minerals Borax plant north of Hwy. 58 and Liebengood goes to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 30 hall on the other side of the freeway.
Liebengood, 52, would dearly love to turn left to the plant at Borax Road instead of right to the union hall, but the company locked him out at 7 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 31.
Gehring, 41, the plant’s general manager, is responsible for keeping the facility running smoothly as it supplies 42 percent of the world’s refined borates.
Since the lockout, hundreds of replacement and salaried employees are operating the plant.
Liebengood, a millwright at the Borax plant for almost 33 years, is vice president of the union local.
Together with his brother and fellow Tehachapi resident Dave Liebengood, who is president of the local, Jack Liebengood is shouldering much of the responsibility for keeping up the morale and focus of the local’s 545 members as they weather the lockout.
Generations of employees
For the Liebengoods, working at the Borax plant is a family affair, as it is for many of the employees.
Dave, 58, has worked at the plant for 40 years. Their dad Harold worked in the warehouse. Jack’s son Thomas works there now. There’s a son-in-law in the mix, and Jack hopes his grandson will find a good job at the plant.
“Three or four hundred people have been here quite a while,” Jack Leibengood said.
The union employees want to work, he said.
“You know how bad I feel,” he said. “Families are going to struggle. Some can’t sign their kid up for Little League.
“I saw a woman pushing two kids in a stroller (among the union members). How long are they going to survive on unemployment?
“I haven’t slept.”
The 545 locked-out union employees live all over East Kern County, contributing substantially to the wellbeing of their communities, Jack Liebengood said.
They live in Barstow, Hinkley, Palmdale and Lancaster in the Antelope Valley, Hesperia, Victorville, Adelanto, Apple Valley, “30 or 40” in Ridgecrest, California City, Mojave, Rosamond, Boron, Desert Lake, North Edwards and 60 in Tehachapi.
The impact of a lockout is not lost on Gehring.
“There are a lot of skilled people who are unemployed. They are from all over,” he said Sunday morning at the plant. “We don’t want to do things like this.”
“I know these people, I know their families,” said Bob Deal of Lancaster, director of pilot plant and process research and a 29-year employee in management. “None of us wanted to get to this point.”
At just before 7 a.m. Sunday, Supervisor Dean Warren of the Electrical Instrumentation Department quietly announced the lockout at the main plant entrance to the union employees who had arrived for their morning shift.
Everyone had been prepared for the statement and no one was surprised.
“I’ve been instructed not to let anybody on the property,” Warren said. He thanked them for showing professionalism and asked them to sign that they were there.
Hundreds of union employees, supporters and their families gathered at the outer plant gate on Borax Road in a show of solidarity, hollering at busloads of replacement and salaried employees going off graveyard shift.
The exiting employees rode in three unlovely white buses with tinted windows, escorted by four vehicles – one in front, one in the middle and two at the end of the caravan.
The passengers were taken to two off-site locations where they had parked their cars and where they will board the buses during the lockout.
A company called J.R. Gettier & Associates provided a low-key but rigid security presence.
The Wilmington, Del.-based company specializes in labor strike security, labor relations and replacement workforce.
Three male Gettier personnel handed out final paychecks to the union employees, who lined up around the block at Chuck’s Pizza parking lot down the street from the union hall.
The security people had set up a table on the cracked asphalt near the open back doors of their white utility van.
The employees showed their identification and received the prepared checks, which included accrued vacation time up to the previous day.
The Local 30 office around the corner was busy Sunday morning as Executive Assistant Jeri Lee gave out information on how to apply for unemployment benefits to members who dropped in before or after picking up their checks at Chuck’s parking lot.
Most of them have never had the experience of filing for unemployment.
Since it’s not a strike, there’s no access to a strike fund.
The day before, nearly the entire membership of the local had jammed into the hall – all but those who were working — voting 100 percent to back the union’s stand against the company’s proposal.
The union, Jack Liebengood said, is willing to negotiate, any time.
The company says the union is refusing to spend enough time negotiating and when they do, they do not address substantive issues.
Gehring said the union’s offer amounts to adding more layers to the existing contract.
“We need to simplify,” he said.
“The old contract is 40 years of old language that keeps getting bolted on. We put forth the entire company proposal. They rejected it entirely.”
“We can clear up 40 years of old language,” Jack Liebengood said. “We’re willing to sit down and work on that.”
A deal can be done, he said.
“We could work out a contract in two days,” he said.
He conceded, “You’re not going to get everything you want.”
Lawyers at the table
“The union says they offered 42 proposals and the company wouldn’t even look at them.
“I’m pretty upset about it,” said Karl Drain, who was born and raised in Tehachapi, has worked at the plant for 32 years and is on the negotiating committee.
“I’ve been through negotiations and this is unbelievable. (The company proposal) is 55 pages of hell. It shows no respect they have for us. When we were a small company, Rio Tinto never meddled. In an article in Forbes magazine Feb. 1998, they called us ‘the jewel of the desert.’”
Negotiations are sputtering along at the Hilton Garden Inn in Palmdale. The negotiators gather there twice a week.
The union has brought in a heavyweight law firm from Los Angeles to do the negotiating. The law firm slugged out a deal for the Screen Actors Guild during its last strike.
The company says it’s highly unusual for lawyers to sit at the table and do the eyeball to eyeball negotiating between union and management.
The union says no, it’s not unusual.
Union members are convinced the mammoth international parent company Rio Tinto Minerals, which is headquartered in London and Australia, wants to break the union and makes an enormous profit without regard for its employees.
“Welcome to the class struggle,” said ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees.
Merrilees said that the company is using the American economic recession to take advantage of American workers.
The company denies that it’s union-busting.
They just want to stop losing millions of dollars, they say, in a tough world economy where the main competitor in Turkey is slicing off large chunks of the market.
“We have no interest in getting rid of the union,” Deal said. “We want flexibility. They see this as a ploy to get rid of the union.”
The Green Book
The existing contract between the company and the union that was signed in 2004 and expired Nov. 4 is bound in a small book with a green cover, hence “The Green Book.”
The Green Book is Local 30‘s bible, the source of answers, fairness and security.
It spells out exactly how employee issues must be resolved at the plant.
It offers protection and due process. It locks in the primacy of seniority.
In one package, the company proposed changes and revisions to The Green Book modeled on a contract that has been in place for eight years at Rio Tinto’s Kennecott Utah Copper plant.
Five unions at the Utah plant recently signed a renewal of the contract after just two weeks of negotiations, Gehring said.
The new system is called “The Matrix.”
It gives the company the ability to promote and transfer employees and to offer incentives to train for other positions.
The union says it’s a smokescreen for getting rid of jobs and putting workers in jeopardy.
“There’s no job security,” said union member Thomas Chavira.
“They want to be able to pick and choose who works, who doesn’t, who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets what jobs,” Merrilees said.
Jack Liebengood said the company “wants it all.”
“I could lose my house with this system,” Liebengood said. “I can get laid off even with 30 years by a guy with two months on the job.”
“I think it’s a bad idea,” said Terri Judd, a loader operator in the mine for 13 years. “They are wanting to take away job security. The contract would kill our safety. After 13 years they can send me where I don’t know the job. They can change my job and pay at will.”
The company says the proposal contains built-in safeguards, with committees to make sensitive decisions, and that no complaints have arisen from the Kennecott contract.
“At Kennecott they are allowed to work it out,” Gehring said.
The company has told the union it seeks more flexibility so it can respond more efficiently to a fluid international market, but that plea does not dispel employees’ fear of losing the security of the familiar and workable, nor does it alter their distrust toward the corporate entity.
“We know what we’re proposing is big change,” said Gehring, the plant manager. “Change is scary.”
He said the company can go on indefinitely under lockout conditions, but that’s not a solution.
“We’re very hopeful this will not go on,” Gehring said.
“There will be an end to this,” Deal said.
“They will be back.”