MULLAN — More than two and a half years ago, members of United Steelworkers Union 5114, citing unfair labor practices and a contract dispute, voted to strike at Hecla Mining Co.’s Lucky Friday Mine.
The stalemate could be nearly over.
Earlier this week, Hecla, which is owned by stockholders, hosted its regular third-quarter earnings call with Wall Street analysts. At the beginning of the call, Hecla chief Phillips Baker Jr. said the union’s negotiating committee and the company had reached a tentative agreement to end the impasse.
“While neither side got all that it wanted,” Baker said, “we think this agreement is consistent with agreements that other North American mines [have], unionized or not, and puts the Lucky Friday on a path toward long-term success.”
USW 5114 President Dave Roose confirmed the deal. He said the tentative contract will need to garner a majority of his membership’s approval to be implemented.
“The proposal has to be mailed to all of our members to read first, and then we will have one or two special information meetings for anyone to ask questions or seek clarification,” he said. “Ultimately, it is up to our members, who are all intelligent enough to read the proposal and then make an informed decision when they vote.”
Voting could take a month or more. Many USW 5114 members have left the area during the strike to find work.
One key issue has been the Lucky Friday’s unique bid system, in which senior miners essentially manage mine personnel. Senior miners, under the system, are empowered to choose which part of the mine they work in as well as with whom. If a miner wishes to change jobs or locations, the decision falls to senior miners, not to management. USW 5114 has wanted to maintain the bid system.
But on the call — during which the specifics of the deal were not disclosed — Baker said the new contract was “consistent with the way other mines in North America operate. We’ll have the same capabilities” that other mines throughout U.S. and Canada do.
Hecla opposes the bid system. It prefers an arrangement that allows management — not senior miners — to decide who works where and with whom. Hecla said the system means employees would receive higher wages as their skills progressed.
“The quid pro quo that we put to them was generally a better compensation package for them,” Baker said, “particularly for the skilled trades. We had a lot of difficulty attracting skilled tradesmen. This helps alleviate that. That would be the primary thing, but we ended up giving concessions on holidays and medical benefits. There’s just a variety of things.”
If the tentative contract is approved by union members, Hecla estimates that it would take a year to bring the mine back to full production. Baker said a yearlong ramp-up would allow time to initiate capital projects that had been put on hold since the strike. He anticipated about 200 workers would return to the mine.
Baker and Roose expressed excitement that the strike could come to an end.
“The Lucky Friday being fully operational will be good for our workforce, our shareholders and the Silver Valley community. It’s just a good thing for everyone,” Baker said.
“This is a step in the right direction for our members,” Roose said.
Shares of Hecla Mining closed trading in New York up 8 cents, or 3.6%, at $2.31 a share. The stock, which opened 2019 trading Jan. 2 at $2.34, is flat for the year. Hecla has a market value of $1.1 billion. It has recorded $592.4 million in revenue for the past 12 months. Trading volume on Thursday was nearly twice Hecla’s daily average.