The union members of the Lucky Friday mine in Mullan, Idaho have been on strike since March 13, 2017 - 538 days and counting.
In July, when the strike was on the brink of 500 days, we spent a week in the Silver Valley of Idaho. We sat down with Dave Roose, unit chairman for United Steelworkers Local 5114. The miners haven’t asked for anything beyond what their 2010 signed contracts stated. Simply put, the new contracts reduce protections, pass insurance costs on to workers, and eliminate the bid system - a union procedure where senior union members put together crews and bid on various jobs in the mine. When the contracts expired, Hecla, the mining company, attempted to change the terms in a way that, Dave (below) told us, “boils down to greed.”
500 days is a long time to strike, particularly in a town where the economy is almost solely based on mining. When we asked Dave how he maintains hope, his answer was quick and firm - “One day longer, one day stronger.” He credited his wife, Kim, for keeping him grounded and being his right-hand partner. The two keep the food pantry and hardship office running, with the help of union members and their partners. Funds, which come from the union and gifts from individuals, help cover the bills of striking families.
Most, if not all, of the miners, have found temporary work at other mines. Some have left their families behind, traveling to other states. Danielle and Rayanne (below), two young women we met at the union office, are currently raising their families while their husbands work in North Dakota and Montana. After dropping their kids off at school, they take shifts in the union office, ensuring it is always staffed and open to the community. The tenor of the town has shifted - life goes on, but with families fractured.
Ron Sullivan (above), a miner we met on the picket line, is making just a fraction of what he had been making - just enough to barely get by. He’s working seven days on, seven days off at a neighboring mine. When he’s not mining, he’s at the picket line - three of his seven days off are spent at the strike site. At 51 years old, Ron is working jobs he wouldn’t have done in his youth. He compares his current pay to what he made flipping burgers as a teenager; and while he has no problem flipping burgers, that’s a profession that doesn’t require risking your life and safety underground. It’s exhausting, but he’s not about to give up - not even if the strike goes on another year.
“I won’t give in. I don’t know anyone who will give in,” Ron told us. When we asked Ron about the union, he spoke clearly about the issues he has with right-to-work laws. Wearing his “World’s Greatest Dad” t-shirt, Ron told us about the way the union protects him, his family, and his fellow miners.
“I’m union, always have been. A lot of those guys who aren’t in the union don’t realize the reason they’re getting the 4th of July off, or the weekend off, or working a 40 hour work week is because of the union. They say it protects lazy people, but I don’t think so. I think it protects your rights.” Ron paused and wondered how to phrase his next comment politely. We assured him he didn’t have to be polite - so he barreled on. “Without the union, you have the good ol’ boy system - whoever is, uh, petting the boss gets the job.”
Perhaps the only thing that has surprised Ron about the strike was the fact that anyone would cross a picket line in a mining town. This is personal, and it’s felt across the town and the valley. It’s part of the town’s history. Ron’s parents were part of the strike at the Bunker Hill mine when Ron was a child - and he walked the picket line with them. “Back then,” Ron told us, “a scab wouldn’t make it a day. Your house might get torched. Nowadays all we can do is sit here and wave at them when they go by.”
Back at the union office, Dave echoed Ron’s comments: crossing the picket line is a cardinal sin. Dave, who has been mining since he was 17, was part of the 366-day strike at the Sunshine Mine in the 80’s. He’ll pass former co-workers on the street and vaguely remember spending days below ground with them - but he can remember the names and faces of each man who crossed the picket line almost 40 years ago. Being a scab, he told us, is a legacy that you pass on to your children - it’s a stink that you can never wash off.
Jared, a miner in his early 30’s, joined us at the picket line. He’s been mining for just over ten years and has already lost two close friends in mining accidents. One friend who died was more than just a friend, he was his roommate. That reality - of how dangerous mining is - makes the strike even more important. Without health insurance, he feels abandoned by the company. “It’s always been the standard, man,” he told us. “If you work in these dangerous mines, you get insurance. All the sudden it’s gone - your body can only handle so much.”
Midway through his eight-hour shift watching the picket line, he talked to us about the future he wants for his three young children. Like Ron, he’s not looking to be rich - he’s just looking for his fair share, “we didn’t ask for a penny more - we just asked for the same contract we’ve always been on. They’re trying to take our insurance, cut our wages, take our silver escalators, take our profit share, take our bid system - everything.” Jared mentioned a few times that he wasn’t a talker. He didn’t want his picture taken. He wasn’t there to make a statement or to be political, he was there because it was the right thing to do.
Mullan, Idaho. July 2018.