Idaho silver miners mark one year on strike against Hecla

By Edwin Fruit
April 2, 2018
March 17 protest in Mullan, Idaho, shows silver miners’ determination to continue their strike.
Spokesman-Review via AP/Becky KramerMarch 17 protest in Mullan, Idaho, shows silver miners’ determination to continue their strike.

MULLAN, Idaho — Chanting “One year longer, one year stronger!” and “Mullan is a union town!” over 150 silver miners, family members and supporters marched here March 17, marking the one-year anniversary of the strike by United Steelworkers Local 5114 against Hecla Mining Company. The miners were forced out on strike when the company moved to unilaterally impose unsafe operations under a new contract the union had voted down.

Hecla bosses want to gut the union-enforced system under which workers bid on job crews based on seniority, a system miners say helps protect their safety and lives. The company also wanted to increase miners’ medical insurance payments and cut bonuses and silver premiums, an important part of what miners take home.

On March 7 the unionists voted 123-51 to oppose handing the contract battle over to arbitration. “We don’t want a panel of federal judges who have never seen the inside of a mine to make decisions affecting our lives,” Dave Roose, chief negotiator for the local, told the Militant. “We’re the ones who know how to operate safely.”

USW District 12 Director Robert LaVenture said no new talks are scheduled with the company.

Roose chaired rallies at both the beginning and end of the march. He and other strikers spoke to the importance of solidarity from other unions and the community. Among those attending the protest were USW Local 338 members from the Kaiser plant in Spokane, Washington; International Association of Machinists Local 86 members from the Triumph plant in Spokane; United Food and Commercial Workers members from Spokane; and USW officials form Arizona.

Unions bring solidarity

Armindo deMedeiros, president of USW Local 480 in Trail, British Columbia, which represents workers at the smelter where ore is worked from the Hecla mine, spoke to the rally. “We represent 1,100 workers and the unions can’t bow down to the company,” he said. “Our company told us we were too weak to go on strike, but when they saw the overwhelming vote for it, they knew we meant business.”

Four members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23 from Tacoma, Washington, participated. Brian Skiffington from the local’s Young Workers Committee spoke, explaining they had already given $5,000 to the strikers and he had brought more. Skiffington emphasized the importance of building fighting unions, pointing to the West Virginia teachers strike and victory as an inspiration.

“Today is not a celebration but a show of solidarity. We couldn’t be here without the financial and other help we’ve received from labor and the community,” said striking miner Rick Norman, one of the union road warriors who have traveled around the U.S. and Canada to confront Hecla management at trade shows and corporate meetings. He read off the names of the union locals and groups who had helped, including the Militant, which has championed their fight.

Sandra Noble, the wife of a striker, told Pat Scott, a Walmart worker from the Seattle area, that it “was awesome” to see her there with a sign saying “Walmart workers support silver miners.”

“This is about the livelihood of the workers and the sustainability of the community,” Pam Kohn, whose brother-in-law is one of the strikers, told the Militant. “I came to the rally to show support and I think the younger generations need to know the history of this valley and to see people fighting for their rights.”

This writer and other Socialist Workers Party members who came to the rally went door to door in the town of Silverton, a few miles west of Mullan, to talk to workers about the strike, what working people face today, and introducing them to the Militant and the party. We met retired miners, a member of the fire department and others who all said they supported the strikers.

“This valley has a long history of labor struggles,” Bill Albinola, a retired logger and saw mill worker who still works part time to make ends meet, told us. “My grandfather was an immigrant from Italy and in the 1890s he got arrested and jailed with hundreds of others as they fought to unionize the mines here.”

Donations and messages of support should be sent to USW Local 5114, P.O. Box 427, Mullan, ID 83846.