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Workers head back to the job May 24, 2010

Union ratifies Rio Tinto contract

The labor lockout at the Rio Tinto Boron plant has ended.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 30 voted 279 to 95 the afternoon of May 15 to ratify a new agreement between the union and the plant, a nearly 75 percent margin of approval.

Workers will resume getting paid Monday, May 17 as they commence a week of orientation and safety training.
They will return to their jobs on Monday, May 24.

“It was worth it to save this union,” said Jack Liebengood, vice president of Local 30. “They wanted to destroy the union in the beginning.

“It’s time for us to get back to work.”

The company expressed satisfaction with the contract.

“We have reached a fair agreement that allows us to improve work practices and productivity so we can keep the business competitive throughout the life of the operation, potentially another 70 years,” said Dean Gehring, general manager, Boron Operations, in a press release on May 15.

Union members ratified the agreement at the union hall in Boron after reviewing and discussing the contract.

Only members who were present and who were eligible under union rules were able to vote.

Local 30 Vice President Jack Liebengood announced the results of the voting at 5:17 p.m. Saturday to several dozen union members waiting outside the union hall.

The vote tallying took more than two hours as four union validators on the balloting committee checked and re-checked the ballots to avoid any anomalies that might invalidate the vote.

The union employees had been locked out since Jan. 31, 2010.

The previous contract ended Nov. 4, 2009.

The settlement was hammered out at top levels on both sides by 1 a.m. Fri., May 14.

The lockout took its toll on both sides. Several union members were reported to have lost their homes and some took other jobs, according to members who did not want to be quoted.

At the plant on the other side of Hwy. 58 from the union hall in Boron, the company hunkered down into lockout mode, bringing in contract workers to keep the plant running and to fulfill orders.

The contract includes new provisions for promotions, transfers, overtime and contracting out, Liebengood said.

The union membership rejected the company’s original offer 100 percent.

“A lot is back in. We put language in there to protect us,” Jack Liebengood said.

The union got a raise across the board of 2.5 percent and a $5,000 signing bonus, Liebengood said.

“I’m glad it’s over,” he said after announcing the results of the vote. “My wife Janet will be happy.”

Liebengood is one of 70 members of Local 30 live in Tehachapi. His brother Dave, also a Tehachapi resident, is president of the local.

“They made changes that are good for both the company and the union,” said union member Dave Hernandez of Lancaster.

Hernandez said the union members are eager to return to their jobs.

“I can’t wait. It’s been a long time. We’ve been ready to go back from day one,” Hernandez said. “It’s been hard on the families.

“It’s a good contract, it’s a big victory, we lose very, very little,” said Kevin Martz of North Edwards, spokesman for the Local 30. “We kept the key issues in our old contract.”

Another union member -- anonymity requested -- proclaimed it “a very exicting day. We kicked their butts.”

The breakthrough in negotiations came after the top guns on both sides met in San Francisco.

Following the union’s rejections of a “final offer” Aug. 29, Rio Tinto’s Chris Robison, vice president operations, Americas, met with ILWU President Robert McEllrath at the union’s international headquarters in San Francisco, said Rio Tinto spokesperson Susan Keefe.

Those meetings were followed by sessions May 11, 12 and 13 with the full bargaining teams in the federal mediator’s office in Glendale.

Keefe and union spokesperson Craig Merrilees both cast the agreement in positive terms.

Merrilees said that under the terms of the settlement:

• the company cannot convert full-time jobs into part-time temporary positions;

• protections are in place against discrimination and favoritism;

• and union members are guaranteed annual wage increases in a six-year pact.

Keefe said the company had achieved “critical improvements” while maintaining competitive wages and benefits.

Those improvements include the company’s ability to base promotions and transfers on skills, performance and experience, Keefe said.

Merrilees, on the same issue, said that "Workers maintained protection against discrimination and favoritism involving promotions, shifts, scheduling and overtime assignments."

The issues of flexibility in promotions and transfers was the major stumbling block in the negotiations.

"Current employees will continue to receive good retirement pensions; newly hired employees would recieve 401(K)

Where are you from? Boron, California