MULLAN — It’s been more than two and a half years since members of the United Steelworkers Union 5114 chapter voted to go on strike at the Lucky Friday Mine over what they claimed to be unfair labor practices and disagreements over a new labor contract.
Since that first day in March 2017, in what has essentially been a marathon battle of attrition, both Hecla Mining Company and USW 5114 have been deadlocked with very little common ground being found.
According to statements made on Thursday during Hecla’s 2019 Third Quarter Financial Results conference call though, an end to this torrid saga may be in sight.
Initially announced at the top of the call by Hecla President and CEO, Phillips S. Baker Jr., a tentative agreement between USW 5114’s negotiating committee and the company has been reached.
“While neither side got all that it wanted, we think this agreement is consistent with agreements that other North American mines (have), unionized or not, and puts the Lucky Friday on a path toward long-term success.”
The News-Press confirmed the announcement with USW 5114 President Dave Roose, who stated that the tentative contract will need to pass a simple majority vote of 50% plus 1 with the union members to be implemented.
“The proposal has to be mailed to all of our members to read first and then we will have one or two special information meetings for anyone to ask questions or seek clarification,” he said. “Ultimately, it is up to our members, who are all intelligent enough to read the proposal and then make an informed decision when they vote.”
The voting process could take a month or more to complete, as many USW 5114 members will have to have their ballots mailed to them since they left the area to find new work.
While little is known about the contents of the tentative contract, Baker did reveal some small details toward the end of the Thursday conference call.
When asked by a caller during the Q&A portion about the specifics of the contract and whether or not Hecla would have the ability to nominate people where they want them to go (in the mine), Baker replied with “we do, this contract is consistent with the way other mines in North America operate. We’ll have the same capabilities that other mines throughout U.S. and Canada (do).”
This answer by Baker is addressing arguably the biggest point of contention that has kept the two sides so far away from an agreement for so long — a job selection system in the mine.
USW 5114 leadership has fought hard to keep the “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.
Hecla on the other hand has argued 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. Under this system, Hecla said that employees would receive higher wages when they progress to higher Technician (Tech) levels by increasing their skills.
Baker’s statement during the Q&A period of the call infers that the progression system (or at least, some form of it) is apart of the new tentative agreement, as no other mine in the country uses an exact copy of the Lucky Friday’s bid system format.
As for what was given up by the company to get to this agreement, Baker mentioned a few key concessions.
“The quid pro quo that we put to them was generally a better compensation package for them, particularly for the skill trades,” he said. “We had a lot of difficulty attracting skill tradesmen, this helps alleviate that. That would be the primary thing, but we ended up giving concessions on holidays and medical benefits. There’s just a variety of things.”
If the tentative contract is approved by the USW 5114 members, Hecla estimates that it would take roughly a year to get the mine back to full production. Baker explained that this year-long ramp-up period would be needed to initiate some capital projects that have been put on hold since the strike and to simply get the process of getting everyone back to work going.
“It hasn’t been finalized by any means, but the essence of it is there’s a roster of people that were employees at the time of the strike. That roster is about 200 people, at the time (of the strike) there were about 250. So you’ve had people that have retired or they’ve quit, so they have dropped off the roster. So we’d be anticipating those 200 people coming back to work over the course of time during 2020 as we ramp-up.”
As for how they feel about a possible deal finally being reached, both Baker and Roose were excited for the opportunity to finally have the strike come to an end.
“The Lucky Friday being fully operation will be good for our workforce, our shareholders and the Silver Valley community. It’s just a good thing for everyone,” Baker said.
“This is a step in the right direction for our members,” Roose said.
The News-Press will provide more information on this story as it becomes available.