The ability of lead miners to pick their work crew is an established tradition at the 75-year-old Lucky Friday Mine, an underground silver property near Mullan, Idaho.
Both production and safety depend on the compatibility of the team, the miners say.
“We work in very dangerous conditions, where everybody’s got to watch each other’s back,” said Phil Epler, president of United Steelworkers Local 5114. “This is the safest way to work in the stopes, and we’ve broken production records with it.”
Proposed changes to work assignments are one of the main reasons the Lucky Friday miners voted March 12 to strike. Union and management remain far apart on a variety of issues, most of which are unrelated to pay.
“We think we have the best miners in the world,” said Luke Russell, a spokesman for Hecla Mining Co., the Lucky Friday’s owner. Part of the labor dispute is about “who assigns where and when those great miners go to work.”
Most employers have that flexibility, he said. And while the current job bidding system has a long history, “it’s not the system that will make the Lucky Friday the great mine it can be in the future,” Russell said.
In 2016, Hecla lost about $3 on each ounce of silver mined at the Lucky Friday, Russell said.
“We need to work together with the miners to lower production costs,” he said.
The strike is the first at the Lucky Friday since 1981. The decades without a walkout reflect years of productive relationships between labor and management, said Epler, the union president.
But Epler said the Lucky Friday went through a series of management changes after 2011, when a cave-in killed miner Larry Marek. The fatality led to stepped-up federal inspections at the mine, which resulted in a year-long closure for repairs to the main shaft.
“Our main thing is safety,” Epler said. “We’ve had enough bad things happening at the Lucky Friday.”
Miners there work more than a mile underground. Conditions are hot and humid, and the deep mine is prone to rock bursts, which can cause the walls and roof of work areas to collapse.
Late last week, the Steelworkers filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging unfair labor practices by Hecla.
Company officials declined to comment on the complaint, which the union said is aimed at restarting talks.
“The union wants to bargain. We want to get them back to the table,” Epler said.
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