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Union workers take Mojave mine labor dispute to the British consulate in West Los Angeles

April 16, 2010 |  3:07 pm

Hundreds of union activists rallied outside the British consulate in West Los Angeles on Friday to pressure a mining company to settle a bitter labor dispute with locked-out workers at a site in the Mojave Desert.

“End the lockout now!” Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, told enthusiastic union supporters from the back of a pickup truck parked along Wilshire Boulevard outside the consulate offices. “You’re the British government. We expect you to do the right thing.”

Demonstrators from many unions chanted on behalf of the locked-out workers as Teamsters big rigs drove up and down the street in support.

Similar protests targeting mining giant Rio Tinto, which is based in Britain and Australia, occurred Friday at British consulates in Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, union officials said.

More than 550 miners have been locked out since January in the nasty row centered at a huge mine where minerals known as borates are mined and processed in the tiny high desert town of Boron, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.

Borates, which contain the element boron, are used in a wide range of products, including glass screens for computers and televisions, pesticides and detergents.

The workers' previous contract expired in November. They say Rio Tinto delivered an “ultimatum,” demanding that workers relinquish their full-time jobs earning $15 to $29 an hour for inferior, part-time work and little protection for seniority.

“We want the British government to step up and exercise its influence on behalf of these locked-out workers,” said Peter Olney, organizing director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents the miners.

Dame Barbara Hay, the British consul general in Los Angeles, met with Durazo and other labor representatives April 13, said Jon Harrison, a consular spokesman.

“While she listened carefully to their concerns,” Harrison said in an e-mail response, “she also explained that this was a matter between the company and the union.”

Union officials are attempting to make the Rio Tinto dispute an international cause celebre. Rio Tinto, with headquarters in London and Melbourne and mines around the globe, says it is looking for greater flexibility amid fierce competition, especially from a larger borates mine in Turkey, where workers earn much less than in the United States.

The company denies trying to lay anyone off or turn workers into part-timers. According to the company, wages would increase under the management proposal from a current average of $26 an hour, and health and other benefits would be retained.

“We want to become more competitive,” Bob Deal, manager of research and development at Rio Tinto Minerals, said by telephone from the company site in Boron. “We want flexibility we don’t have right now.”

--Patrick J. McDonnell in West Los Angeles