Strike averted as Kennecott workers reach new labor contract

Union members approved the deal with Rio Tinto hours before the deadline.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kennecott's mine towers over nearby neighborhoods in 2021. Union workers and Rio Tinto reached a new labor contract.

One of the world’s largest copper mines avoided a protracted labor dispute late Thursday as Kennecott workers approved a new contract with Rio Tinto.

The company says employees at the Kennecott Copper Mine are getting competitive wages, better benefits and new pathways to career development. Union membership approved the five-year agreement Thursday night, just before the deadline for reaching a new deal expired.

The new pact took effect Friday and will cover about 1,300 Kennecott employees who are represented by the United Steelworkers, International Union of Operating Engineers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

In a statement Friday morning, Rio Tinto Kennecott Managing Director Gaby Poirier said the company worked closely and productively with the unions to reach an agreement that he says is fair, benefits employees and their families, and enables Rio Tinto to grow.

“The agreement will ensure that we can continue to provide competitive wages and benefits for all roles,” he said, “and will allow Kennecott to pursue an exciting future as a leading domestic copper supplier in the United States.”

The company’s comments came a week after hundreds of workers rallied outside Rio Tinto’s Kennecott office in South Jordan’s Daybreak.

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

At the rally, Brandon Dew, district representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers, said his members were prepared to strike as a last resort if no deal could be reached. Dew, co-chair of the negotiating committee, said the company and labor groups were working in good faith and that he was optimistic about landing a new contract.

He said Friday that union membership voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new agreement, but he declined to say what percentage approved the accord.

“It’s the best deal that the members have got at Kennecott in well over 20 years,” he said, “and definitely met their needs for current cost of living and ongoing increases.”

He said the unions look forward to making the mine successful for the next five years.

Negotiations for the new contract spanned seven weeks. The unions and the company had a tentative agreement before the rally, but members of the labor organizations voted it down.

“We deeply care about our employees,” Poirier said in an interview. “We listened to their feedback, and we adjusted our offer accordingly.”

The company said the first year of the contract includes wage increases that range from 5% to more than 23%. Each year after that, workers will receive a 3% raise.

Employees will also receive a $1,500 bonus for ratifying the contract.

Dew said the contract keeps insurance costs level over the course of the pact, adds seniority provisions for transfers and promotions, and provides increases to pension multipliers.

“Overall,” he said, “the membership should be happy.”