Media War: Boron Lockout

Curator's Note

My scholarship has pursued two parallel research lines over several decades. The first focuses on unpacking migratory, aspirational, and rising below-the-line film/TV production workers in Hollywood. The second involves ethnographic fieldwork on migrant farmworkers and rural labor communities. This In Media Res video essay explores the unplanned intersection of, and collision between, both of those worlds. Media War: Boron Lockout examines that worker-vs-media nexus point through the lens or crucible of an extended labor war in rural Kern County, California.

The video essay is one of two dozen "media archaeologies" I produced in small towns along 130 miles of a single state highway in the desert and the San Joaquin Valley. Highway 58 is the very same highway the Oakies traveled on to get to California's Central Valley during the 1930s Great Depression (then called 466). My method: try to find and contrast every film and media representation I could dig up from Hollywood location shooting, newsreels, advertisements, and corporate marketing media, and place those encrusted official depictions alongside interviews we filmed with residents and old-timers along the road.

Early on, while filming the oral histories in 2010, a major labor war erupted and converged around the tiny town of Boron, California, located in the high Mojave Desert. Boron was originally a mining "company town," but evolved into an off-the-grid getaway and hardscrabble village for miners who worked the nearby US Borax open-pit mine. US Borax was the producer and sole sponsor of a Hollywood TV Western series in the 1950s and 1960s entitled Death Valley Days. For a time, pre-president Ronald Reagan served as the series' charming on-camera host and advertising pitch-man.

The US Borax mine had long since been acquired by transnational Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto by the time we began our fieldwork in 2010. Transnational Rio Tinto stockholders and management shared few of the familiar relations with its workers that US Borax had known. Frustrated during contract talks with demands made by the ILWU union representing the miners, Rio Tinto executives abruptly "locked-out" and prevented their employees from re-entering the mine to work. Vowing to "break" the union picketers, Rio Tinto boasted that it was outsourcing its miners' work to a non-union strike-breaking subcontractor named "Gettier," whose paramilitary security guards we filmed driving scab workers through ILWU picket lines. But ILWU-30 and sister unions had other ideas, and ultimately, more effective media production practices than Rio Tinto's and Gettier's corporate media marketing professionals.

This In Media Res video essay traces media use and content circulation triggered by and issuing from the five-month lockout. It places that media war within YouTube's golden-era promise and the pre-dystopian social media period, as well as alongside the deeper historical contexts of TV and Hollywood depictions of the same town and mine. In the video, top-down utopian "New Age" corporate media campaigns showcasing "transparency" collide with angry YouTuber worker blowback against both Rio Tinto and Gettier's paramilitary media and scab workers. This unfolding media war is placed alongside deeper Hollywood media prototypes and "pre-texts." These include both the 1964 film The Carpetbaggers (whose choreography of "cartoon capitalism" was filmed at the same mine); and the 2009 film Avatar (which the ILWU, MUA, and sister unions overtly mimicked in street performance art, to protest and push back against Rio Tinto's predatory regime).

Ultimately, Rio Tinto management was unprepared for the scope and force of the worldwide labor solidarity blowback that followed over the five months of their lockout (scenes from Turkey, London, Melbourne and California are included). This video essay shows how collective face-to-face confrontations, fueled by anti-marketing and social media creativity, along with strategic challenges to stockholder/executive "manliness," helped derail Rio Tinto's financial masquerade as "participatory" anthropology. Rio Tinto's rhetoric of "community development," produced with its ostensibly consenting "indigenous partners," faltered when labor media outed the lies. Ultimately, faced with this 360-degree media pressure, Rio Tinto folded, and gave in to ILWU-30’s original contract demands. Media War: Boron Lockout offers a case study for others in creative mainstream and effective social media practice; provides a model enabling others to organize for better worker conditions, far beyond the tiny town of Boron, California.

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