Workers remain on strike at Hecla Mining’s underground silver, lead and zinc Lucky Friday mine located in the Coeur d’Alene Mining District in northern Idaho. The United Steelworkers (USW) Union Local 5114 voted to initially go on strike on March 12. 

The previous six-year contract between Hecla Mining Co. and the United Steel Workers expired in April 2016. Previously, both sides were negotiating with the help of a federal mediator, but they reached an impasse in February. Hecla has reportedly proposed changes to miners’ health care, scheduling and bonus pay.

The union released a statement saying Hecla downplayed how the contract demands would impact jobs at the mine and the company’s proposal created safety risks by removing team ownership of responsible bid miners from the equation.

“Giving management free reign in who staffs our stopes and sole discretion over other important decisions that could have life-or-death consequences does not make our jobs more secure,” the statement continued. “With some miners who have spent up to 40 years working at the Lucky Friday mine, the company also wants to reduce recall rights from three years to three months, meaning a miner could be effectively ‘terminated’ after a short layoff. Stripping us miners of dignity and respect that we have earned through decades of hard work and sacrifice will not improve Hecla’s bottom line or enhance ‘shareholder value.’”

“We deserve a fair contract now — not a list of unfair, unnecessary and unsafe demands that make our jobs less secure and jeopardize our safety.”

“The current dispute is less about financial provisions of the contract and more about who assigns work: that is determining when people work, where they work and with whom they work,” said Luke Russell, vice president of external affairs at Hecla Mining. “The previous system generally worked in the past but will not work for the mine of the future, which is why the rest of the mines in America have moved away from that approach.”

According to Phil Epler, president of the USW Local 5114, there are not any scheduled meetings between the workers and Hecla. “We are still currently on strike,” Epler said. “Hecla has been unwilling to bargain in good faith.”

Epler added that the union has room to bargain and would like Hecla to return to the negotiating table.

According to Russell, the company has met with the union 28 times of the past 11 months, and as recently as March 14. “We have some of the best miners in the world, and we remain open to talking with the union,” he said. “We are asking our great labor force to join us as we modernize the scheduling and job assignment process to give us the flexibility needed to keep the mine safely operating for years to come.”

The Lucky Friday mine produced more than 3.5 million ounces (oz) of silver in 2016, an 18.8% over 2015, mainly due to higher mill throughput, grades and recovery in 2016. The mill operated at an average of 844 tons per day (t/d) in the fourth quarter of 2016 and 803 t/d for the full year. The company recently completed the No. 4 Shaft Project, which will extend the life of the mine by granting it access to deeper, higher grade ores and it has seen an improvement in cash as it encountered higher-grade ore. For the fourth quarter, however, the company reported all-in sustaining costs of $18.51/oz after byproduct credits. The spot price for silver is currently less than $17/oz.