MULLAN, Idaho – Steelworkers and their families took to the streets Saturday to mark what they say is the Idaho Silver Valley’s longest mining strike.
The strike at Lucky Friday Mine passed its one-year anniversary Tuesday. The work stoppage has idled the region’s largest underground silver mine, owned by Hecla Mining Co., and put about 230 union workers on the picket line. The second longest strike was a 366-day outage at the Sunshine Mine, which took place about 40 years ago, according to the Steelworkers.
“No one wants to go on strike, but when it has to be done, it has to be done,” said James Hogan, a mill worker at Lucky Friday, who attended the rally with his young son, Abel. “This just happened to fall on our generation. We’ve had good contracts and negotiations with Hecla in the past.”
About 100 people chanted “Mullan is a union town! We won’t let you shut it down!” and “Fair Contract! Now!” as they marched from downtown to Lucky Friday’s picket line.
Union members and management remain at odds on a number of contract issues. Mine managers say changes are needed to keep the 76-year-old mine profitable into the future. Union members said the company’s proposal would jeopardize worker safety.
While Saturday’s rally was upbeat, full of speeches about brotherhood and solidarity, workers acknowledged the hardships of being on strike.
“It ain’t been pleasant. Families have had tough times, but you can’t just roll over,” said Robert Christensen, a 52-year-old miner from Wallace. “We’ve shot the company’s proposal down three times. That tells you it isn’t a good contract.”
For Art Drobny, 47, the strike has meant a loss of family time, as well as loss of wages. The heavy-equipment mechanic at Lucky Friday took a snowplowing job with the Montana Department of Transportation this winter. He works the afternoon shift, which means he only sees his partner, Jessica Lewis, and her daughters on Saturdays.
Drobny expects to get laid off in about two weeks, when spring weather arrives.
“I got a job offer to go to Texas to work on the border wall,” he said. “But I’m trying to stick around.”
The average hourly worker at Lucky Friday earns about $84,000 per year in wages and production bonuses, according to Hecla. While that sounds like a lot of money, it’s a tough job in an unforgiving environment, said Louis Elam, who was hired by Hecla shortly before the strike. He’d previously worked at Lucky Friday for a mine construction contractor.
“When you’re working 6,500 feet below the surface, the rock temperature is 130 degrees,” Elam said. “You’re working 12 hour shifts, breathing in diesel exhaust … And when things go wrong, you usually don’t get a second chance.”
In 2011, a miner was killed at the Lucky Friday Mine during a rock burst. As mining occurs, intense pressure builds up in the Lucky Friday’s brittle quartzite rock formations. The rock can fail suddenly, causing cave-ins.
“They pay you for your diligence and safety,” Elam said. “These are talented people, who know how to work this rock.”
While Hecla and the Steelworkers disagree on a number of issues, including pay and benefits, a key point of dissension is the seniority-based bidding system that governs work assignments. Both Hecla and the union agree the bidding system went into effect at the Lucky Friday in the 1980s. They agree on little else about it.
According to Hecla, the system creates “Sugar Daddies,” the slag term used at Lucky Friday to describe the influence senior miners wield over other workers. Sugar Daddies pick their crews and bid on job sites at the mine, which are assigned to the most senior qualified miner and his team.
Sugar Daddies dictate who can earn the upper end of the pay scale of $100,000-plus annually at Lucky Friday, and who earns on the lower end, around $60,000, Hecla’s management said. Most senior miners pick their crews based on family connections or friendships, which discourages outside miners from applying at Lucky Friday, said Luke Russell, a Hecla spokesman, in a phone interview.
“It’s hard to recruit under those conditions,” he said. “You might be a seasoned miner, but unless you become part of the select group, you won’t get picked for a team. You could end up driving a truck.”
Dave Roose, the Steelworkers Local 5114 unit chairman, said the system rewards talent. Senior miners get paid based on production, so they’re always looking for hard workers with good safety records to mentor and train, he said.
“Thirty-seven years ago, it was Hecla’s idea to do this,” he said. “They approached the Steelworkers about letting qualified people pick their partner. They thought it would drastically reduce the injuries that Hecla was experiencing at the time.
“It only takes one rock falling from overhead to kill a man, and then you don’t go home to your wife and kids that day,” Roose said.
Roose said the bidding system builds loyalty, promotes a strong safety ethic and has broken production records.
But Hecla’s Russell disputes that the bidding system is safer, or more efficient, than work assignments at other underground mines. Lucky Friday hasn’t broken any production records in recent years, he said. In 2000, the mine produced 5 million ounces of silver. In 2016, the output was 3.6 million ounces.
Hecla also envisions a more mechanized future at Lucky Friday, Russell said. The company has ordered a “remote vein miner” from Sweden, which will be tested at the mine next year.
“We think it will improve safety and production at the mine,” Russell said.
Russell said Hecla doesn’t anticipate layoffs as a result of the equipment, but some workers may be retrained for other positions. The Steelworkers are suspicious of the 60-foot-long, electric-powered machine.
“It’s technology that’s been proven elsewhere, but not in this deep, deep mine,” Roose said. “They say it will chew its way through the ground, eliminating any need for a man to be there. But what if you lose a multimillion (dollar) piece of machinery in a rock burst?”
While Saturday’s rally drew a good crowd, not all the striking workers attended. Some have left the Silver Valley for mining jobs in Montana and Nevada. Others, like Boyd Dotson Sr., were working at the temporary jobs they’ve picked up locally during the strike.
Dotson’s wife, Deline Dotson, came in his place with her son and stepson.
“It’s been hard, but we’re making it,” said Deline Dotson, who works in home health care. “We’re hoping they get back to work.”