USW 5114 shoots down arbitration

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MULLAN — The possibility of an expedited end to the saga at the Lucky Friday mine disappeared Wednesday when it was announced that union miners had voted to turn down arbitration and remain on strike.

In mid-February, representatives with the Hecla Mining Co. and the United Steel Workers (USW) Union 5114 chapter were mulling over the idea of settling their labor contract disagreements through the process of interest arbitration. According to the American Bar Association, interest arbitration is “generally used after other methods of resolving a bargaining impasse, such as mediation or fact-finding, prove unsuccessful.”

If agreed to by both parties, Hecla and USW would have presented their contract proposals to a three-person arbitration panel. This panel would have heard both sides explain why their contract proposal should be implemented at the mine, then they would have made a decision on which one to use.

Following a 123 to 51 voting result from the miners favoring to remain on strike versus going to arbitration though, it seems that this panel will never hear any proposals.

“Our members have spoken! We have played the game, jumped through the hoops, and everyone has had the chance to vote,” USW 5114 unit chairman Dave Roose said. “We have chosen to remain on strike rather than let someone else decide our future.”

Luke Russell, Hecla’s Vice President of External Affairs, voiced the Company’s displeasure with the Union’s decision.

“We are disappointed the Union members rejected resolving this strike through a binding arbitration process,” he said. “The Union had suggested arbitration. We agreed it would allow a third party to determine which contract would be fair for all. Unfortunately, the vote stops that.”

The choice of whether to stay on strike or go to arbitration was a complex one for the miners as both options had their positives and negatives. Even if it was chosen, a decision to go to arbitration would not have guaranteed a favorable outcome for either party. Although it may have brought about a swift end to the long-going dispute (reports suggests the hearing would have been held in May), the stakes would have been high in this winner-take-all scenario with no middle ground and no compromise.

If the arbitration panel chose Hecla’s contract proposal for example, all of the company’s changes would have been implemented and the miners would have had to work under a contract similar to Hecla’s original offer in late 2016 (excluding agreements already made prior to arbitration). If the panel chose the Union’s proposal on the other hand, the miners would have gone back to work under a new contract that would have been similar to the expired 2010 contract (again, excluding agreements already made prior to arbitration).

With the miners decision to remain on strike, this expensive and exhausting game of chicken will go on with no set end date, but it will also leave the door open for further talks (which have been largely fruitless so far) and a potential compromise that could save face for everyone involved.

USW 5114 President Phil Epler explained that, “our members have directed us back to the negotiating table. Its our intention to bargain a fair contract with Hecla.”

Since the strike will carry on, Hecla’s President and CEO Phillip Baker Jr. stated that operations at the Lucky Friday mine will carry on with the staff available.

“Hecla will continue to evaluate its next steps, but for now we will continue with the limited production and development using our salary workforce,”

Barring an agreement being made over the weekend, the labor strike at the Lucky Friday will reach its one year mark on Mar. 12.

Tensions between Hecla and USW 5114 began to rise in April/May 2016 when their previous labor contract from 2010 expired. Negotiations continued throughout the year, but yielded no results. Hecla’s proposals for a new labor contract included many changes compared to the 2010 contract that the union has refused to accept.

Although they have clashed over several issues from vacation days and recall rights to health care and pay rates, one of the major points of contention has been the implementation of a job selection system.

Hecla wishes to use what they call a “progression system” that allows management to decided who works with who and where in the mine. The union defends the current “bid system” in which the decision of who works where with who falls to the senior miners — not management.

As of Wednesday, Mar. 7, USW reports that “no meetings with Hecla management are currently scheduled.”

The last strike at the Lucky Friday was in 1981 and lasted from March 21 to May 23.

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