By CHANSE WATSON
MULLAN — It was exactly two years ago today that members of the United Steelworkers (USW) Union 5114 chapter were gathered in the Outlaw Bar & Grill to hear the seemingly inevitable announcement from former-president, Phil Epler that they were going on strike.
“Two hundred thirty votes for a strike, two nos! Pretty much a unanimous decision!” Epler shouted over the crowd that night.
At the time, this announcement was overwhelmingly welcomed by the miners of the Lucky Friday, as it signaled the beginning of a fight with their employer, the Hecla Mining Company, over what they claim to be unfair labor practices and disagreements over a new labor contract.
Both sides had seen the writing on the wall days, even weeks, before the official announcement and had geared up for the long haul. It would be hard to believe, though, that either side thought the strike would go this long and become the longest in Lucky Friday and Silver Valley history.
In what has essentially now become a marathon battle of attrition, both Hecla and USW 5114 remain deadlocked with very little common ground found.
To best explain the current situation and the story of the dispute, the Shoshone News-Press recently reached out to leadership on both sides for comment. While Luke Russell, Hecla’s Vice President of External Affairs, answered our questions; current USW 5114 president and USW Sub-district 3 Director Steve Powers turned down the opportunity.
“At this time Mr. Powers and myself have chosen to decline any type of interview,” Roose said in an email responding to the questions.
In addition to leadership, the News-Press also conducted interviews with two current members of USW 5114, on the conditions that their names be withheld for safety reasons. For the rest of this article, they will be referred to as Nathan and Wayne.
In order to understand what the current situation is and what to expect for the future of the mine, one must first look back at how we got here.
The first time this happened
The current strike at the Lucky Friday in Mullan is not the first in its history.
The last time miners took to the picket line at the mine was on March 21, 1981, when USW 5114 members rejected by secret ballot a 44-cent-per-hour wage boost and a three-year wages and benefits package with Hecla Mining Company that was recommended by their negotiating committee.
“Economics appear to be the main issue, although neither side has taken an official position on the strike,” stated an article published in the North Idaho Press on March 24 of that year.
Negotiations continued for two months until a deal was reached on May 26, 1981.
The North Idaho Press announced the end of the 60-plus day strike with a simple lead — “The strike at the Lucky Friday mine is finished.” According to that article, United Steelworkers Local Union 5114 accepted an offer from Hecla, which in an open letter provided to both the striking miners and area news organizations, was described as the “final” offer.
Before the current strike
Tensions between Hecla and USW 5114 began to rise in April/May 2016 when their previous labor contract from 2010 expired on May 1. Negotiations continued throughout the remainder of the year, but yielded no results.
While these negotiations were being conducted, the united membership of USW 5114 would hold several pickets in front of the meeting locations and Hecla offices. While the union had voted to authorize a strike, this act was still seen as last resort at this time.
After roughly six months of failed talks, Hecla representatives then presented the union with their “best offer” during their 25th meeting on Dec. 8. This offer, and the subsequent “last, best and final” offer in January, would be voted down by the union.
With little common ground found and even less hope of finding any on the horizon, Hecla announced on March 10, 2017, that they would be implementing portions of the rejected last, best and final. Two days later, the miners voted 230 votes for, 2 against in favor of going on an economic strike (later changed to unfair labor practices). It was on March 13 that the first miners took to the picket line in front of the Lucky Friday.
What is this all about?
Although the company and the union have clashed over several issues — from vacation days and recall rights to health care and pay rates — the main point of contention has been the implementation of a job selection system.
USW 5114 leadership has argued to keep the current “bid system” that has been used at the mine in the past.
Under this system, the senior miners essentially have the power to manage personnel in the mine.
Senior miners have the ability to decide which stope they work in and who they work with in that stope. If a miner wishes to change jobs or locations, the decision falls to the senior miners — not management.
In addition to this point, they also say that the bid system keeps miners safe by putting the most experienced people in charge.
Rick Norman, a 36-year veteran Lucky Friday miner, explained in a previous letter to the editor why USW 5114 believes this system works.
“Our bid system has reached and exceeded production and safety goals time and time again,” he said, “and it will do the same thing in the future.”
The union backs this “record breaking system” by citing increased production numbers over the years which have occurred under the current system.
Hecla wishes to replace the bid system with what they call a “progression system,” which allows management (not the senior miners) to decide who works with who and where.
Russell argued in a previous interview that under this system, “employees choose a career path where they have the ability to learn multiple tasks (example: the “Mining Support” career path includes caging, nipping, truck driving, loader operation, road maintenance). This system incentivizes employees to build diversity into their skill sets and allows them to grow within the pay schedule.”
He added that, “when the company has multiple employees with diverse skill-sets, it has flexibility to manage the needs of the mine.”
Under this system, Hecla says that employees would receive higher wages when they progress to a higher Technician (Tech) level by increasing their skills.
“The system is designed to broaden expertise in employees and crews and reward the increase in skill level with a higher base wage,” Hecla’s Lucky Friday Labor Relations page stated.
On the safety front, Russell believes that the progression system is “proven to be safe and benefits both the employees and the company.”
To back up his point, Hecla’s labor relations page attributes overall safety in the mine to the National Mining Association CORESafety program — “a risk-based management system approach which has resulted in the Lucky Friday’s safety performance substantially improving.”
The first 150 days
The USW 5114 strike was enjoying a time of high morale and significant community support in the early months of the effort. Participation at the picket line and rallies was high, local businesses and other unions backed them in various ways, the strike fund was sizable and all the members were presenting a unified message that all they wanted was a “fair contract.”
“I felt that they were fighting for our best interests and what we were doing was right,” Wayne said. “Especially in the early days and the year leading up to it (the strike), they (Hecla) were painted as a greedy monster. They (the union) drug up the history of the unions and all that. Not to take away from the history, of course, but they made it sound like we were continuing that fight that our forefathers fought. This David and Goliath story where this monster wanted to come and take everything from us and we were the last line of defense.”
Both sides stayed entrenched for the first few months while hoping to wait the other out, and could not even agree on when to meet with one another.
During this time, union leadership boosted morale further by saying that the strike was negatively impacting the company’s bottom line and that their financial position was solid.
“We’re holding up fine, we are healthy in our local strike and defense fund,” Epler said in a June 14 article of the News-Press.
Hecla fired back by reporting positive first quarter financial and operating results, such as positive cash flow, sales of $142.5 million and net income of $26.7 million.
A change in
It was only in June 2017 that representatives from both sides agreed to meet in July, and then again in August (both meetings would yield no results).
According to Nathan, the union was employing a more level headed approach up until this time.
“At first it was meticulous, it was well structured,” he said, “In the early days, leadership had the best interests of the union at hand and went into negotiations wanting to solve this as quickly as possible, while at the same time — getting what we wanted back.”
By summer though, the first pockets of frustration and tension had began to flair up within USW 5114. With some members hoping for an expedient end to the strike, and others pushing to be even tougher on the company, internal debates were numerous.
Hecla also turned up the pressure by stressing their perceived issues with the bid system.
Both Wayne and Nathan point to the change in union presidents as the moment USW 5114 altered its strategy to more radical tactics.
“In the first year, it was gung-ho,” Nathan said. “Once the change of leadership happened, when Phil Epler left and Dave Roose became president, you began to see the change with the union.”
A specific date of when Epler left the union is not known, nor was the change in leadership ever officially explained.
Several of the union’s more hard-line members had issues with Epler, as they saw him as being too friendly with the company during negotiations. What Wayne thinks was the final straw though was an alleged incident involving former union member Zachary Cox, in which he was physically assaulted and sustained serious facial injuries.
While no charges were ever filed with law enforcement, it is widely believed among union members and others in the community that Cox received his injuries from a union representative in July or August of 2017.
Wayne backed up this claim by explaining what Cox had told him and what others had said during that time.
“I was contacted by Cox after the incident (not the physical altercation) and he explained to me what happened the night leading up to and the day of … There was a little incident with the District President (at the time) and one of his colleagues that came to some disgruntled union employees during an event in Wallace … Zac Cox showed me the Facebook messages that said he sincerely wanted to explain his situation and told Epler that he was going to go up there (Mullan) and explain his side of the situation. Whereas Epler turned around and essentially threatened him.”
He continued, “That day he went up there, as far as he (Cox) was telling me, he walked in, Epler crossed the Union Hall in a fit of rage. Cox said he wasn’t going to deal with this, turned around to leave, got cold-cocked in the back of the head and essentially was ground and pounded until his jaw broke. That very day, I went up to the Union Hall to ask what happened with the whole Cox thing and the only answer that I got from a then-current rep was that, ‘he’s just a little punk.’ There was no explanation. There was nothing. In my opinion, I believe Cox 110 percent, as he is not the person to go out and just attack someone.”
Regardless of the circumstance, Epler quietly backed away from the scene and Dave Roose assumed more responsibility — eventually becoming president and signaling a new, more aggressive strategy for the union.
“It was instantaneous,” Nathan said of the change. “It went away from being a business minded negotiation to get the best deal we could as a union, as well as the company getting the best deal that they could swallow — a mutual agreement. At that point (the change in president) it became for lack of a better term — a mafioso regime. They began to target anyone who crossed (the line), anyone who spoke out, they started to target anybody who would maybe question a decision. I was in a meeting where I spoke up and was verbally assaulted by everybody to the point where I was like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna have to fight my way out of here.’”
An example of this shift in tone is the use of the USW 5114 Facebook page, which used to only be used for informational purposes only (announcements). Now, followers of the page can see regular posts showing the names and faces of individuals the union sees as “scabs” — or individuals who have crossed the picket line to work in one capacity or another.
To cross, or not to cross
The first major instance of the USW 5114 Facebook page being used in this manner was on Dec. 14, 2017, when work trucks from Zanetti Bros. Inc (a local construction company based in Osburn) first crossed the picket line and went up to the Lucky Friday Mine.
Documenting the event on their page, USW 5114 posted, “It’s very obvious that Zanetti’s have NO respect for working people, unions, and local miners!! Their true colors were exposed today, as they crossed our picket line to haul product for Hecla!! Good job Zanetti’s!! You really have shown what arrogant, greedy people you really are!!”
Zanetti trucks have continued to cross the picket line since the incident and union members have been quick to disparage them on social media and in public when given the opportunity, referring to the construction company as “Scabnetti.”
This incident was ultimately chalked up as a win for the union, as the original purpose of the work trucks was to take mineral concentrates from the mine to the The Trail, B.C. Teck smelter in Canada. These trips were halted after USW District 3 workers at the Trail smelter refused to accept concentrates from the Lucky Friday.
“That was a huge, huge, victory for us,” Roose said in an earlier interview.
For the first time since the strike began, there was a possibility in early 2018 that an end was in sight.
In mid-February, representatives with Hecla and the union were mulling over the idea of settling their 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.
Although this option would have arguably brought about a quicker end to the long-going dispute, the stakes would have been much higher for both sides. In this winner-take-all scenario, there would have been no middle ground and no compromise.
If the arbitration panel chose Hecla’s contract proposal, for example, all of the company’s changes would be implemented and the miners would work under a contract similar to Hecla’s original offer in late 2016 (excluding agreements already made prior to arbitration). If the panel chose USW’s proposal, the miners would go back to work under a new contract that would be similar to the expired 2010 contract (again, excluding agreements already made prior to arbitration). This option to pursue arbitration is still up in the air, as both sides have to agree to it.
Following a 123 to 51 voting result from the miners favoring to remain on strike versus going to arbitration though, this idea never got past the planning stages.
Status report: Lucky Friday and Hecla
Recognized now as the longest mining strike in the history of the Silver Valley, the work stoppage at the Lucky Friday appears to have no end in sight at this anniversary mark.
Russell tells the News-Press that there are currently no negotiation meetings with union representatives scheduled at this time and no ongoing discussions, “but we remain open to discussion should the union have suggestions they would like to present.”
Without the use of USW 5114 manpower, the Lucky Friday is still producing silver primarily with salary workers.
“Currently, workers are busy at the mine producing silver, rehabilitating the mine’s No. 2 shaft and making way for the state-of-the-art rock cutter known as the remote vein miner (RVM),” Russell said.
The RVM is a rock cutting machine that is designed to consolidate the multiple mining processes into a single, continuous operations.
Currently, the mining sequence includes drilling and blasting rock, loading or mucking that rock into trucks, then hauling it to the hoist to take to the surface. That process is followed up with bolting the ground to ensure stability and then repeating the process.
“The RVM would operate manually or remotely and could do most all of that in a single, continuous operation,” Russell said. “The RVM represents a big change in how mining may be done at the Lucky Friday. While technology will continue to evolve, as it must to keep the mines operating, the nature of work may change. At this point, we do not see the number of workers changing that much, but what they do will continue to evolve.”
As for the effect the strike has had on the Silver Valley, Russell said that Hecla is disappointed to see the negative impacts it has had on the local economy and community at large — with workers leaving the area or commuting to jobs in other states while their families struggle on here.
“But our offer is fair and necessary for the long-term sustainability of the mine.”
Russell also points out that since the strike began, the price of silver has dropped by 10-15 percent with today’s price of slightly above $15 an ounce.
“In 2016, the mines all in sustaining cost of production was over $17-18 per ounce. So at today’s prices, the mine would actually be losing money if the union wasn’t on strike.”
Status report: USW 5114
Since the first months of the strike, the union has seen a steady drop in participation and active membership.
From the original 250-plus members USW 5114 had when the strike began, Wayne states that 40 of those members have completely left the union and the mine. Of the remaining members, he estimates that roughly 40-50 percent still have vested interests in the saga and the strike — explaining that many are still officially members, but have moved onto other jobs or do not actively participate. Of the remaining active members that still have invested interest, he said that the top 5 percent are the ones actually making decisions.
Both Wayne and Nathan, who have drastically changed their opinions of the union since the early days, partially contribute a massive disconnect with leadership as a reason for the lack of participation.
“The paradigm has definitely shifted, in my opinion, from what we thought was the right idea in the beginning to a complete disregard for members,” Wayne said. “A kleptocracy is I guess the best word for it. Very cultish, mobish mentality.”
What they both point to as the main issue of disagreement is leadership’s stance on the job selection system, arguing that the current bid system does not benefit the majority. If the change was made to Hecla’s progression system, Nathan explains that only a small few would be negatively impacted.
“It would affect the sugar daddies,” he said. “The reason that it would is for some many years, these sugar daddies were allowed to pick their team and they were allowed to basically look at the face of management at the mine site and say ‘screw you, I’m not going to do this,’ Then they would have the protection of the union to be able to argue their point. I’d say eight out of 10 times, they would win that argument against the company because of how the bid system is structured.”
Wayne adds that this power held by the senior miners was constantly used in the Lucky Friday as a reward or punishment, depending on the situation.
“I’ve seen guys come in with 10, 20 years plus of experience and they left within the first three to six months for the sole reason that the bid system had screwed them over,” he said. “I was down helping one of the sugar daddies down in 16 stope one time. He was picking his guys and I saw my name on the list and I said to him, ‘you have most of the senior guys here. I’d like to work underneath you, or at least someone on the crew that you pick because I would be able to learn something.’ and he goes, ‘you know, I’m probably just going to pick my same people, but you’ll get something eventually.”
Nathan strongly disagrees with this behavior, citing he believes is the original purpose of the union.
“That’s not how it should be. The union (as a whole) presents this picture of a brotherhood … and they would have your back no matter what. When the regime change happened, it turned 180 degrees.”
“I was put into a stope two or three times, and yanked out to put in somebody they wanted more. Not because they were a harder worker or because they were better qualified, it was because that was their buddy,” he added.
Looking forward, both of these miners are pessimistic that an end to the strike is coming anytime soon due to the extreme nature of their leadership and leadership’s disregard for the rest of the members.
“It would benefit the vast majority 100 percent,” Nathan said of implementing the progression system. “The way it would is that if you have the desire to become a miner and you show that desire just like any other workplace where you work hard, show up on time and do your job well — you’re going to get promoted. Under the current system, that’s not how it operates. You could work your ass off and be the best employee there, but because somebody doesn’t like you because you haven’t been there long enough or you’re not from the Valley or you have company ties — you are now ousted to stay on a truck the entire time you are there.”
Wayne makes it clear that his issue with the current stance of the union is not a criticism of leadership’s experience or skill, but rather a critique of their antiquated mindset.
“I don’t want to take away from their experience or their time there,” he said. “They’ve learned a lot and we could learn a lot from them, but unfortunately, especially in this Dave Roose era, you can start to see at least some of the people who are pulling the strings. And those people have fallen into a seniority complacency where they don’t think they should get what they want, they expect to get what they want.”