Striking Idaho miners on March 17 marked the one-year anniversary of their strike with a solidarity march and rally.
Miners at the Lucky Friday silver mine in Mullan, Idaho and their supporters chanted “Mullan is a union town. We won’t let you shut it down!” as they marched from the town center to the Lucky Friday picket line.
The mine is owned by Hecla Mining, a precious metals mining company that operates mines in Alaska, Mexico, and Canada as well as the one in Idaho.
Members of United Steelworkers Local 5114 began their unfair labor practices strike on March 13, 2017 after the company attempted to unilaterally implement changes to the collective bargaining agreement.
The company’s attempt came after more than a year of negotiations with the union on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Among the changes demanded by Hecla, were concessions, some of which, workers said, will make their jobs less safe.
Work in underground silver mines like the Lucky Friday is dangerous.
A mixture of heavy equipment, high temperatures, brittle rock, and unstable dust make for a volatile work environment.
“When things go wrong (in the mine), you usually don’t get a second chance,” said Louis Elam, a Local 5114 member to the Spokane Spokeman-Review during the solidarity march.
In 2011, an explosion at the Lucky Friday killed one miner.
“They pay you for your diligence and safety,” continued Elam. “These are talented people who know how to work the rock.”
A key element in keeping the mine safe is the seniority system that miners and the company agreed to more than 35 years ago.
The seniority system allows senior miners to select their crews. The system, according to union members, enhances safety because it builds crew cohesion and communication.
It also has resulted in record-setting production levels.
But the company thinks that the seniority system gives miners too much control over their jobs and wants to end it.
The company’s concession demands also included changing procedures for recalling workers after layoffs, increasing workers’ health care costs, moving work out of the mine, and reducing miners’ bonuses.
Before the strike began, the company tried to bully workers into accepting the company’s demands and once the strike began, it tried to intimidate them into returning to work.
The union filed unfair labor practice charges against the company, and some of the charges were recently resolved.
As a result of a settlement between the company and the National Labor Relations Board, Hecla mailed letters to union members telling them that the company will no longer engage in the unfair labor practices listed in the letter.
Among other things, Hecla said that it will not threaten employees with “negative consequences” if they support the strike; it will not promise benefits to those who abandon the strike; and it will allow workers to take accrued vacation as either a lump sum payment or earned vacation time.
The letter also said that the company will bargain in good faith with the union and will not unilaterally implement changes to the collective bargaining agreement.
Prior to receiving the letter, Local 5114 members had a chance to vote on whether to continue the strike.
In a secret ballot election held on March 7, workers voted 123-51 to reject a proposal to submit the outstanding negotiating issues to arbitration and instead to continue the strike and to continue negotiating with the company.
“Our members have spoken,” said Dave Roose Local 5114 unit chairman to the Shoshone News Press after the vote. “We have played the game, jumped through the hoops, and everyone has had the chance to vote. We have chosen to remain on strike rather than let someone else decide our future.”
Local 5114 members are looking to make it clear that the March 17 solidarity march was not just a one-time event and that they are ready to continue their fight for a fair contract.
On the local’s Facebook page, Roose announced that beginning March 23, “every Friday will be designated Black Friday” and encouraged members, family, and supporters to wear black “in remembrance of all the union members that have given their lives on picket lines and (as) a show of solidarity!!”