More than 100 trade union delegates gathered in Salt Lake City Wednesday to protest Kennecott Utah Copper's parent company, London-based Rio Tinto, for its alleged mistreatment of employees and the environment.
At the fourth Rio Tinto Global Union Network Conference, union leaders lashed out at the international mining giant for what they called an established pattern of "unconscionable" and illegal behavior.
Tom Johnson, spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America, said union delegates have identified three main grievances, which they plan to take to their members for review and, later, to the company.
First, labor relations throughout the company are "horrible, atrocious," according to Johnson.
"The immediate example of that is here in Salt Lake where, after intense, bitter contract negotiations over an eight-month period, they (Kennecott) illegally violated the contract within two days," he said. "That is unconscionable and consistent with Rio Tinto's labor relations tactics around the world."
Delegates held a press conference Wednesday evening to pledge their support for 122 former Kennecott workers who were laid off in July. Kennecott announced on June 25 — two days after the company and union settled a long-running labor dispute with a new, six-year contract — that it planned to lay off about 120 union workers. The company blamed the cuts on bleak market and industry conditions.
But union representatives claim the workers were targeted based on their activity with the union or were the victims of discrimination. The union has filed discrimination charges with the Utah Antidiscrimination and Labor Division. The case is still pending.
On Wednesday afternoon, Kennecott spokesman Louie Cononelos reiterated the company's position that "the reduction in force that took place was done in conjunction with the collective bargaining agreement and did not violate any state or federal law. The company did not seek to retaliate or discriminate against any union member, or any protected class."
The second grievance relates to the environment. "This is an arrogant company, with absolute disregard for any local or international environmental standards," Johnson said, pointing to Rio Tinto's Kennecott operation as an example.
"Here in Salt Lake, they're sitting on the largest polluted underground body of water in the world," he said. The company has acknowledged causing pollution damage in the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, paid a fine and agreed in a "memorandum of understanding" that it will find a way to treat the contaminated areas and water.
The proposal currently before the water district includes a series of wells and reverse osmosis plants that will capture and clean water flowing to West Jordan, South Jordan, Herriman and Riverton. Public comment on the plan will be accepted until Oct. 1, and a "Southwest Groundwater Project" public hearing will be held at 3:30 p.m. today at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, 168 N. 1950 West.
"We're of the opinion that the proposal meets all the conditions of the consent decree, and that we have brought forward a meaningful project that will be beneficial to the affected communities," Cononelos said.
Finally, the union is concerned about sustainable technologies and practices.
"Mining on the face of it is an extremely problematic industry," Johnson said. "Rio Tinto does not make an effort to use technologies that are more sustainable. They do not discuss with local communities their environmental impact. They operate in secret with governments and with groups that are friendly to them."
Not so, Cononelos countered.
"Rio Tinto has a very proactive approach to dealing with the communities in which it operates," he said. "It has long endorsed the best applicable practices for mining and the environment."
Despite obvious differences, Johnson said workers are not asking for anything beyond what they and the company have already put on paper.
"We're not asking for our people to be put back to work who don't deserve to be put back to work," he said. "We are demanding that the law be followed, that contracts be honored. Contracts are not suggestions, they are not requests. They are legally enforceable, and we will utilize every legal avenue to ensure that our labor contracts are enforced."