‘We’re prepared to strike’ — Hundreds of Kennecott workers rally for new contract

Sides are still talking but a March 31 deadline looms.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Union officials lead Rio Tinto employees and supporters at a rally outside the company’s office in South Jordan, Friday, March 25, 2022, in support of a new contract.

South Jordan • Hundreds of employees of one of the world’s largest copper mines rallied Friday in support of a new union contract with one of the world’s largest mining companies.

“What do we want?” supporters shouted outside the Kennecott office for Rio Tinto in South Jordan’s Daybreak.

“Fair contract!” hundreds yelled back.

The demonstration came as the March 31 deadline for ratifying a new agreement between four unions and Rio Tinto nears for workers of the Kennecott Copper Mine.

Rio Tinto said if it is unable to reach an accord with members of the United Steelworkers, International Union of Operating Engineers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, it is prepared for work to continue uninterrupted at the mine in the Oquirrh Mountains.

How many workers are affected?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rio Tinto employees and supporters cheer at a passerby honking outside the company's office in South Jordan, Friday, March 25, 2022, in support of a new union contract.

About 1,300 workers — including heavy-equipment operators, maintenance employees and line operators — are represented by the contract.

The company said it already reached a tentative deal with union leadership recently, but union membership rejected it.

“That agreement included competitive wages, better benefits, also very clear, defined pathways for career progression,” said Lita Deisley, corporate relations manager for Rio Tinto.

The tentative agreement, according to the company, included wage bumps ranging from nearly 10% to more than 40%.

Those figures can be deceiving, said Brandon Dew, district representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers. The increases included a one-time signing bonus of $3,000, something Dew said is not helpful in the long term as the cost of living along the Wasatch Front continues to rise.

The $3,000 offer, he said, is no longer on the table after membership rejected the tentative agreement.

Would the unions strike?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rio Tinto mine operators Ted and Margaret Gunderson rally outside the company's office in South Jordan, Friday, March 25, 2022, in support of a new union contract.

Dew said his union and Rio Tinto are working in good faith and that he remains optimistic about reaching a deal. But if that doesn’t happen, union membership is ready to take action.

“We’re prepared to strike if that’s what we need to do,” he said. “Obviously, that’s the last resort.”

Before reaching that point, he said, the union and the company could extend the existing contract, pushing back the deadline for inking a new agreement.

Deisley said Rio Tinto has a positive track record with unions and that there hasn’t been a Kennecott strike in decades.

Those who attended the rally Friday marched around the mining company’s office holding signs that called for a fair contract and solidarity while passersby honked their horns in support.

Among the marchers were Ted and Margaret Gunderson, Kennecott operators who wore their highlighter-yellow Rio Tinto uniforms during the demonstration.

Ted Gunderson said some mines pay their employees twice as much as what he and his wife make. And while the Gundersons want higher pay, he said, they aren’t asking for that steep of a raise.

“We are asking for an increase,” he said. “We put our lives on the line every time we’re up there.”

Shad Wright, union president for the United Steelworkers chapter that represents Kennecott workers, said his members want better working conditions and a fair contract. He declined to elaborate.

Deisley said Rio Tinto is committed to the safety and well-being of its employees.

“Every day,” she said, “the first thing we’re focused on is safety.”

The company and unions will head back to the bargaining table next week.