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South Jordan Journal

Unions approve Kennecott contract in final hours

May 02, 2022 08:31PM ● By Collin Leonard

By Collin Leonard | [email protected]

The Kennecott copper mine narrowly avoided a union strike this March, as a labor agreement was ratified within hours of the deadline.

The mine, located west of Salt Lake City, was purchased by Rio Tinto in 1989, and operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is one of the world’s largest excavation and open-pit copper mines, so vast it can be seen from space. Demonstrations were held outside Rio Tinto’s office in South Jordan by members of the unions.

Last year, 900 workers from Rio Tinto’s aluminum smelting facilities in Kitimat, Canada went on strike, effectively reducing production to 35%. Those employees felt the company was not offering competitive wages, and refused to hire full-time workers instead of contractors. The parties negotiating the agreements locally have indicated this situation is much more cooperative. Four unions were represented in the negotiations: the United Steelworkers, International Union of Operating Engineers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The agreement cycle changes with each contract. Usually it is in the workers’ best interest to negotiate shorter term contracts. This way, the imperfect game of predicting the future needs of members is less variable. Rio Tinto vied for a 7 year contract while the unions asked for 3 years. They met in the middle, so the collective bargaining agreement will renew in April 2027.

Brandon Dew, the district representative for the IUOE, said “the public needs to know negotiations are a valuable process. Both sides never get everything they’re asking for, but it's a partnership.” Each union approaches the table differently. According to Dew, the union focused on what is happening locally, without concerning themselves with the politics at other facilities. The IAMAW educates their members on what has and has not worked in the past; historically, nationally and locally.

The partnership initially failed to satisfy the union members, as a first agreement was vetoed in a majority vote. According to Andy Owen, the IAMAW representative, “some proposals were going to devastate steelworkers,” so the organizations closed ranks around them. The main points of contention involved rising costs of living, current levels of benefits, and procedures for promotions and transfers. Both sides did agree on one thing: striking is the last thing anyone wants.

Owen made it clear that Kennecott does a great job when it comes to safety. The negotiations were primarily based on economic drivers: insecurity in the economy, projects in the pipeline, ratio of bargaining members to contractors and part time employees. Owen said “we have concerns, we don’t know what the world is going to look like. It's always a gamble and a worry.”

The new package includes raises from 5 to 23% in the first year, and then 3% each following year. Some critics have pointed out that this yearly raise falls below projected inflation rates. It will also ensure a more robust training and apprenticeship program to entertain more skilled applicants. At the end of this round, union representatives have come out of negotiations expressing their appreciation for Rio Tinto’s professional and respectful partnership. Rio Tinto did not respond for comment.

Though uncertain, the future is hopeful for the mine and its employees. Owen is hopeful for this cycle, and said “I think these 5 years are going to be good for Kennecott and the unions. I feel like we all got a good deal. I think it has opened doors for the company to hire good people."