Idaho’s “Silver Valley” may sound romantic, but hundreds of miners who work deep inside the region’s deep, hot and dangerous hard-rock silver mines were forced out on strike last March and now find themselves on the frontline of America’s working class struggle.
ILWU Pensioners and young workers from Northwest locals are stepping up to help roughly 250 miners and their families employed by Hecla to work in the Lucky Friday mine in Mullan, Idaho where silver, lead and zinc are extracted from narrow shafts up to 8500 feet underground.
In early May, the Seattle Pensioners made a 0 contribution to help the members of United Steelworkers Local 5114. Additional support came the following month when Local 19 donated 00 on June 8, and Local 21 donated the same amount on June 14.
“I read about what was happening to these miners, and thought my fellow pensioners would want to do something,” said Mark Downs who personally delivered an early check and solidarity letter from the ILWU Seattle Pensioner’s Club, after making the five-hour drive across Washington State with two other activists.
May Day decision
Downs noted that the Seattle Pensioners had held their monthly meeting on May Day, “which was a pretty good day to share some solidarity,” he said, adding that the group’s vote to contribute was unanimous. Downs stayed overnight in Idaho near the small town of Mullan where the Lucky Friday miners are taking their stand against Hecla, and he attended a union picnic the next day with the striking miners.
Young Workers & pensioners
Downs returned from his trip excited to share his experiences. Word of the strike reached Tacoma where Local 23’s Young Worker Committee (YWC) has been meeting with Pensioners on Thursdays for the past two years. YWC activist Brian Skiffington did some research about the strike and took his own trip to Mullan where he met with the miners and reported back to a joint meeting of the Tacoma Pensioners and the YWC. Both groups decided to launch a new round of solidarity over the summer.
A larger solidarity caravan with 14 participants was organized to depart on August 2, in time to mark 130 days on the picket line. Caravaners made their way to the Wolf Lodge campground where they received a warm welcome from miners and family members, including camp “mom” Megan Chavez and cook Cory Chavez, who prepared breakfast early the next morning.
After finishing the hearty meals, the solidarity visitors were soon mixing it up with miners and other supporters in a spirited protest held in front of Hecla’s corporate headquarters in Coeur d’Alene that attracted 200 participants – a new turnout record.Songs were sung, chants and slogans were shouted and solidarity signs drew many honks from supporters driving past the protest.
Strikers stand firm
The action marked more than 4 months on strike without a single miner crossing the picket line, and no ore being mined at the Lucky Friday. While over half the miners have been forced to search elsewhere for work to support their families, over 100 remain nearby to handle picket duty and other tasks.
Grateful for support
Miners were grateful and enthusiastic about receiving the outside support and checks from members at Locals 19, 22, 23 and 24 plus the Pensioners. The Pierce County Labor Council also provided a donation to support the struggle on behalf of all union members working in the greater Tacoma area running east to Mt. Rainier. Also contributing was the South Sound Jobs for Justice chapter.
Local 23’s Brian Skiffington expressed the views of many when he delivered a brief but inspiring talk based on ideas raised during many meetings back home with the Young Workers Committee and Pensioners, based on the ILWU’s “Guiding Principles” and slogan, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
Making new friends
“Getting better acquainted and developing friendships with these miners and their families was the best part,” said Tacoma Pensioner President Mike Jagielski. He said the encounters with Rick “Redman” Norman, an experienced miner, longtime union member and historian were especially interesting because “Redman was able to entertain and educate us with his historical facts, quick wit and good humor.”
Century of support
The history of solidarity from waterfront workers in the Puget Sound to the Idaho silver miners goes back more than a century, according to Northwest labor historian Ron Magden, who says he found records dating back at least to 1906, when 0 was sent to help silver miners with a similar struggle at the turn of the century.
Rugged beauty, deadly work
Silver Valley lies in a deep gorge where ancient Native foot trails are now covered by Interstate 90, connecting traffic between Spokane to the west and Coeur d’Alene to the east. The rich mineral veins that run through the mountains have made corporations wealthy for more than a century – while miners have struggled to avoid death and serious injuries – and get a fair share of the staggering mineral wealth that they have produced: 1.3 billion ounces of silver; half a billion ounces of gold, 200 thousand tons of copper, plus much more lead and zinc.
The Lucky Friday alone was expected to produce almost 4 million ounces of silver this year that sells for about an ounce. But things changed quickly because of the strike and picket lines holding firm, contributing to Hecla’s loss of million last quarter. The company is now paying .5- million a month just to maintain their non-productive mine during the strike.
Cutbacks force strike
The contract covering miners at the Lucky Friday expired over a year ago, in May of 2016. Workers felt forced to strike after Hecla imposed a concessionary “last, best and final” contract proposal on March 13, 2017. Only two of the 246 miners opposed a strike vote. Anger was fueled by company demands to raise health insurance costs and impose pay cuts. The company also demanded an end to some health and safety protections – including an important seniority provision that gives miners a say in who works together in the dangerous underground tunnels.
“Lowest cost” producer
Hecla is the largest silver producer in the United States with mines in Alaska, Canada, and Mexico. In addition to their size, the company operates on a “lowest cost” philosophy – an approach that may warm the hearts of Wall Street investors but can raise the body count for miners.
Deaths on the job
A series of disasters in 2011 at Hecla’s Lucky Friday killed two miners and seriously wounded seven others, triggering a mandatory one-year shutdown by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Families of the dead and injured workers later sued the company for allowing dangerous conditions inside the mine, but workplace injury laws – including the workers compensation system enacted a century ago – make it difficult to hold companies legally accountable. Idaho’s anti-union Supreme Court dismissed the families’ claims in 2016.
One of Hecla’s concessionary demands would reduce the 3-year “recall rights” down to just 90 days – a right miners need to keep their jobs due to closures or breaks-in-service. Under this scheme, future safety closures could cost all members to lose their jobs – a policy which some believe would dissuade workers from reporting or acting against dangerous conditions.
Deadly mining history
The 2011 disaster was just one of many mining tragedies in Silver Valley throughout the past century that have killed and seriously injured each generation of miners. Just a few miles from the Lucky Friday mine, a plaque memorializes the site where 91 men were killed at the Kellogg Mine in 1972.
Research proves cuts can kill
The legacy of deaths and injuries in the mining industry is well known to every family in the region. Earlier this year, a team of university researchers proved what workers have long known; that “cutting costs” and skimping on safety protections in order to boost profits and please investors, has a direct and negative impact on worker safety. An independent study published in 2017, documented how a wide-range of U.S. companies that strive hardest to please Wall Street investors have employee injury rates that are 12% higher than their peers.
The striking miners are trying to win their struggle for safety and fair pay by enlisting community support, including local businesses that depend on miners for customers. Signs saying, “We support the Lucky Friday miners” are proudly displayed in many Silver Valley stores – similar to ones that appeared in store windows at Boron in the 2010 when the mining giant Rio Tinto locked-out 450 ILWU Local 30 members from a borate mine and processing plant for 100 days. ILWU members also enlisted small business support during the 2011 struggle against the Export Grain Terminal (EGT) in Longview, WA, and during the lengthy 2013 lockout that followed by grain terminal operators at Portland, Vancouver, Longview and Seattle.
Friends and families
Like most ILWU struggles, spouses, family members and friends are playing important roles in the Idaho miners’ strike, including help with media outreach. A letter-to-the-editor published by the Shoshone News Press, titled “Union women unite,” read: “As wives or significant others, it is so important to support EVERYONE as the strike progresses,” wrote Angela Thompson in her letter. “Don’t let HECLA push the new contract on us. Don’t let HECLA think we, as women, are a weak link. Remember that there are parts of the ‘last, best, and final offer’ that could hinder safety, diminish our quality of living, diminish our healthcare options and take away from our quality family time.”
Former Local 21 President’s letter
Former ILWU Local 21 President Dan Coffman, who led the fight in Longview to protect good jobs and ILWU jurisdiction at EGT in 2011, sent an early personal “open” letter of support which the miners quickly posted on their USW Local 5114 Facebook page. “When I started looking into this strike, it became obvious to me that this is about ‘power and control,’ which many struggles are,” he said. Coffman explained that he decided to write the letter after seeing paid advertisements that Hecla was running in local Idaho newspapers, claiming that “safety and health of employees was the company’s top concern.”
Corporate campaign pressure
Besides staffing picket lines, soliciting and disbursing hardship funds, conducting community outreach and media work, union members are also putting pressure on Hecla by analyzing the company’s corporate structure. Now that the company has admitted losing million last quarter and wasting roughly million a month to maintain an empty mine, workers intend to share this and other information with Hecla’s business and banking partners. Demonstrating in Denver On May 17, miners joined forces with fellow Steelworkers and other union activists from the Denver Labor
Federation to converge on the annual shareholder meeting of QEP, a Denver-based gas and oil company that’s got a cozy relationship with Hecla. The big silver mining company CEO Phillips Baker, sits on QEP’s Board of Directors – and QEP’s CEO Charles Stanley sits on Hecla’s Board.
Millions for the boss; cuts for workers
While Hecla executives are demanding cuts from the miners, their own pay has been more than generous. Hecla CEO Phillips Baker received .7 million in 2015 and got a huge raise to .4 million in 2016. Miners said that one year of Baker’s pay raise would cover their higher health insurance costs that are an important issue in the dispute.
Solidarity from far and wide
Besides help from the ILWU, significant support has come from Steelworker Locals, including Local 675 in Carson that is a longtime ally of Harborarea ILWU members. Long-distance solidarity includes the miner’s union in Mexico and Walmart workers near Tacoma. Leaders of the strike say they’ve been overwhelmed with support, which is a good thing, because they are preparing for a long, difficult battle. After the August 2
caravan and rally at Hecla’s headquarters, the company agreed to sit down with the union – only the third time since the strike began. There was no immediate progress, but workers remain determined to stay out as long as it takes to win.
“These workers are fighting for some measure of control over their jobs, just like we would fight like hell and back to save our hiring halls,” said Mike Jagielski. “These guys are used to working underground every day in conditions that are almost impossible for most of us to imagine – so I’m betting on the miners to win and with support from us and others, I think they will.”
Donations and solidarity messages can be sent to USW 5114, P.O. Box 427, Mullan, ID 83846. Local 23 Pensioner President Mike Jagielski and Local 23’s Brian Skiffington contributed to this article.