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Vol. 81/No. 20      May 22, 2017

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Silver miners in Idaho win broad support, prepare for long strike

MULLAN, Idaho — Members and supporters of United Steelworkers Local 5114 maintain picket lines 24 hours a day outside the Lucky Friday silver mine here, nestled in the Coeur d’Alene mountains, in their two-month-long strike against Hecla Mining Company.

There have been no negotiations since the current contract expired in May of 2016, local union President Phil Epler told Socialist Workers Party members who came to offer solidarity. The bosses decided to impose their “final” concession contract offer, which led to the March 13 strike.

The company wants to increase miners’ medical insurance payments and cut the silver premium and bonus payments, an important part of miners’ overall pay. Hecla bosses also want to gut union safety provisions, including a worker team-bidding system based on seniority that miners say helps protect their safety.

“You are an outstanding example for all of labor by standing up to the attacks on your union by your employer at Hecla,” says a letter of solidarity brought to a May 2 miners’ picnic here by Mark Downs, a member of Seattle International Longshore and Warehouse Union Pensioners’ Club. “The demand for recall rights being reduced from three years to three months equals gutting seniority and safety. You work in a very dangerous industry that depends on a strong union for decent working conditions.” Downs presented the miners with a check from the ILWU pensioners for $500.

Safety is a key issue in the strike, a number of miners told us at the union picnic. After several rock bursts at Hecla in 2011 killed Larry “Pete” Marek, Brandon Gray and severely injured seven others, the Mine Safety and Health Administration forced mine bosses to close down for a year to do repairs. Marek’s relatives and others injured in the blasts sued Hecla, saying management knew the mine was unsafe and knowingly placed workers in harm’s way. In the end, the pro-boss Idaho Supreme Court in 2016 ruled for the company.

“The company wants to take away from us the right to decide who works on which crews, no matter what your experience,” said Dwayne Campbell, who has worked at Lucky Friday for four and a half years. “Under the current system, we have the right to say who works where. We have to be able to put our trust in who we are working with and watch each other’s back.”

We visited a memorial not far from the now closed Sunshine mine near Kellogg, a few miles west of Mullan, where 91 miners perished in a fire on May 2, 1972. People told us they support the Lucky Friday miners against the company’s efforts to break their union.

Signs are up in stores and restaurants in the area saying, “We support the Lucky Friday miners.” Members of the SWP visiting with workers on their doorsteps in area towns found little sympathy for the silver bosses.

Support for strike grows
“As wives (or significant others) it is so important to support EVERYONE as the strike progresses,” Angela Thompson wrote in a letter published in the Shoshone News-Press entitled “Union Women, Unite.”

“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,” she wrote.

Solidarity from other unions is increasing. USW Local 12-591 oil workers from the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington, sent a check for $3,000, and coal miners in USW Local 9346 at Teck Resources Ltd in British Columbia sent $1,000.

Dan Coffman, former president of ILWU Local 21 in Longview, Wash., where longshoremen fought off a long and bitter lockout by Export Grain Terminal, also sent a letter of support.

“When I started looking into this strike, it became obvious to me that this is about ‘power and control,’ which many struggles are,” said Coffman’s “Open Letter to HECLA Management,” which was posted on the USW Local 5114 Facebook page. “I saw on your latest PR ad, ‘The safety and health of our employees and contractors is the top priority.’ Who knows better of the safety than the workers themselves? Workers that are underground and risk their lives every day.”

Epler showed Downs and Mary Martin, the SWP candidate for mayor of Seattle, letters of solidarity posted on the bulletin board at the union hall, including a letter and photo from a group of union miners in Mexico. Also posted is a photo of Walmart workers in Federal Way, Washington, accompanied by a solidarity poem to the miners by Pat Scott, one of the workers.

“The solidarity has really been unbelievable,” Epler said. “Some of our newer members say they never expected such an outpouring of support for our fight from all over the place” The backing is important, he said, because they expect a long fight.

Donations and messages can be sent to USW 5114, P.O. Box 427, Mullan, ID 83846.
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