Idaho silver miners to protect hard won gains

Two hundred forty-six Idaho miners on January 17 voted unanimously to continue their strike at the Lucky Friday silver mine in Mullan, Idaho.

The mine is owned by the Hecla Mining Company, which owns silver and other precious metal mines in the US, Mexico, and Canada. Hecla is headquartered in nearby Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

The strike began on March 13 after miners voted to strike when they learned that the company planned to implement portions of its contract proposal that miners rejected in January.

The miners are members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5114.

The contract that the union members rejected included a number of concessions.

“The miners consider this offer to be a slap in the face,” said Steve Powers, USW District 12 staff representative to the Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review. “A lot of them have been here for 15-plus years. They made it through the hard times already.”

The miners, instead, want to hold onto to gains that they’ve won since the local was organized in 1970.

“We’re asking to basically keep things the way they are,” said Local 5114 member Rick Norman to the Spokesman-Review.

In a letter written to the Shoshone News-Press, Norman describes some of the concessions that Hecla is demanding.

Norman writes that the company has offered to increase base pay, but its pay raise is offset by steep increases in health insurance premiums, co-pays, and deductibles that could increase from year to year.

Even worse, the company wants to reduce the workers’ silver price premium, essentially a bonus that, according to Norman “is a big player in our annual bottom line.”

The company also wants to reduce recall rights to three months, which means that no matter how long miners have worked for the company, they wouldn’t be guaranteed a job if they were laid off for three months or longer.

Norman goes on:

The job progression plan (Hecla) has offered is just a way of giving more power and control to management so they can mix and match people when and where they want at their discretion. The bid system we have now is considered the cornerstone of any union and without it our voice in the workplace is greatly silenced. This system has been labeled “outdated” by (Hecla). This system has broken production records time and time again throughout the years, and a big reason for that is the “ownership of responsibility” that comes with the team that is picked by labor. There is a lot of pride and competition between teams and this is only a good and productive thing for labor and management. To discard this bidding system, in my opinion, would be a huge mistake pertaining to production and safety.

As if these concession demands weren’t enough, the company also wants to reduce vacation days.

Hecla’s concession demands come at a time when business is good.

“We finished 2016 strongly, with record silver and silver equivalent production for the year and robust performance at all our mines driving record sales, strong net income and more than doubling adjusted EBITDA over last year,” said Phillips S. Baker, Jr., Hecla’s president and CEO, in a message to investors.

Hecla’s demands for concessions during what Baker describes as a year of “robust performance” is emblematic of a problem that the working class as a whole is facing: corporations are seeking ways to lower labor costs even as they prosper in order to extract an even greater share of the wealth that workers are helping to create.

Other unionized workers seem to understand that Hecla’s overreaching concession demands aren’t just a threat to the Lucky Friday miners, they’re a threat to all workers.

We are getting calls of support and financial pledges from across the country from various local unions,” writes Phil Epler on the union’s Facebook page. “I would like to recognize Brad Toland and his fellow members out of Ironworkers local 86 in Seattle for donating $500 to our hardship fund. I also received a call from Rick Olson out of Machinist local 86 Spokane. He and some of their members are heading over to attend the spaghetti feed at the Sunshine Inn tomorrow at 6 pm. There will also be a silent auction at the dinner with all proceeds going to our hardship fund.

The spaghetti dinner and silent auction raised more than $2100 for the strikers’ hardship fund.

The striking miners also received a message of support from miners in Mexico.

The National Executive Committee of the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Related Workers of the Mexican Republic, and all of its members . . .send a message of support and solidarity to all of the workers at the Lucky Friday Mine who are on strike today, writes Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, president and general secretary of the union. We support your courageous decision to strike and we encourage you to unite to fight and resist . We hope that soon Hecla Mining Co. will be willing to listen, to negotiate and to reach an agreement that respects your working conditions and is fair to all parties. The Mexican Mineworkers stand with you!