Rick “Redman” Norman and about 60 other miners started something this week that they’ve never done before at the Lucky Friday mine in Idaho’s Silver Valley: picket, not work.
“We’re not even asking for nothing,” the long-time worker said while huddled near a steel drum with orange flames peeking out. “We’re asking to basically keep things the way they are.”
Members of United Steelworkers Local 5114 voted 230-2 on Sunday in favor of striking. On Monday morning, they made good on their promise. At 5:30 a.m., Norman and other workers grabbed signs and boxes of hand warmers and started the strike near the entrances to a mine where some of them have worked for four decades.
“The goal is that somebody will come to their senses and we’ll all go back to work,” Norman said. “We just want to go back to work.”
Last April, the previous six-year contract between the Hecla Mining Co., based 60 miles away in Coeur d’Alene, and the union expired. Both sides met several times with a federal mediator to try to move forward. They came to an impasse in February when neither side would budge.
Hecla’s proposals include changes to workers’ health care benefits, shift and vacation scheduling, and bonus pay tied to silver premiums. The company said it is trying to cut costs at a mine that is one of the more expensive to operate in a portfolio that includes mines in Alaska, Canada and Mexico.
The mine has lost about $200 million over the past five years, said Luke Russell, Hecla’s vice president of external affairs.
Changes are needed “to make Lucky Friday productive and safe for years to come,” he said. “The mine needs to stand on its own and be cost-effective.”
The changes would make miners’ compensation similar to that at Hecla’s other mines and the industry average, the company said.
Hecla reported overall income of $69 million last year on sales of $646 million.
“The miners consider this offer to be a slap in the face,” said Steve Powers, a Steelworkers representative based in Spokane. “A lot of them have been here for 15-plus years. They made it through the hard times already.”
Said Andrew Thompson, 41, who has worked at the mine for 11 years, “The company claims to be bargaining with us, but bargaining has nothing to do with forcing things on us. Implementation is not bargaining.”
The strike comes as Hecla is about to begin mining deeper ore that can be accessed with its new No. 4 shaft, which reaches almost 2 miles underground. Russell said this and other equipment changes have set up the mine for success.
The Lucky Friday mine produced 3.6 million ounces of the 17 million ounces of silver that Hecla generated in 2016.