A new year finally has brought a new labor agreement between Coeur d’Alene-based Hecla Mining Co. and nearly 250 one-time striking workers at the Lucky Friday Mine, in North Idaho.
“We’re very pleased to see this behind us,” Hecla CEO Phillips Baker says. “We’re very excited about Lucky Friday going back into full production.”
And it appears some investors are as well. Recent activity at Hecla has caught the eye of Seeking Alpha, a crowd-sourced content provider used by investors and financial markets.
Earlier this month, under the headline, “Hecla Mining Just Got Lucky,” Seeking Alpha noted that Hecla stock had risen 73% in recent months. At market close on Jan. 28, Hecla stock was at $2.96 a share, up from $2.59 a year earlier and well above a 52-week low of $1.21.
“The biggest gains came at the Greens Creek mine in Alaska, which produced $9.9 million ounces of silver—the mine’s highest total since Hecla acquired full ownership in 2008.” The mine also generated 56,624 ounces of gold for the year, its highest output ever, Seeking Alpha says.
Seeking Alpha noted that Hecla had been one of the “worst-performing” precious metals stocks in 2019. But Hecla’s record fourth-quarter gold production of 272,873 ounces suddenly has cast a different light on the company for investors, Seeking Alpha says.
Then, on Jan. 7, members of United Steelworkers Local 5114 ratified an agreement to end the strike at the Lucky Friday mine near Mullan, Idaho. The three-year deal is half the duration of the previous deal that expired in March 2017.
Hecla began recalling mine workers last week, Baker says.
“There will be a large contingent that will come back fairly early in February,” he says. “But it will take the better part of four or five months to get everyone recalled.”
Prior to reaching the labor agreement, the company made the decision to complete two infrastructure projects in the first quarter of 2020 that required limiting mine operation, Baker says.
“For the last 2 1/2 years, it has been operated by our salaried staff – about 70 to 80 people – and we’ve had a contingent of hourly people that had either been hired or had come back to work,” he says.
He adds, “The mine is not starting from scratch. It has been maintained and is fully operational, just not at the tonnage that we’ve had in the past. We anticipate building back to full tonnage by the end of the year.”
The first among the recalled mine workers will include mechanics, electricians, and hoist operators, he says.
“It will be a number of people in that category so that they can get the mine set up for when the miners, and support people for the miners, come back to work,” Baker says.
From management’s perspective, the No. 1 issue in contract talks centered on a bid system in which the miners select their own work crews.
“For us to successfully run this mine for the next 75 years, we had to change the relationship with the workforce,” he says. “The problem with the relationship that we had was a system where we were not able to control where people worked and who worked with them.”
Those decisions where left in the hands of the senior miners, Baker says.
“It was an unusual arrangement, and one that none of our other mines had,” he says.
Mine workers agreed to abandon the bid system under the new contract.
At the time of the resolution there were 214 striking workers. When the strike began the list was at 250, Baker says.
“Ultimately, we will have to do some additional hiring in order to get back, plus or minus, to 250,” he says.
Hecla headquarters, located at 6500 N. Mineral, in Coeur d’Alene, occupies the second level of the two-story Hecla Building. Hecla has roughly 2,000 employees across its mines and other properties in North America, Baker says.
The company reported a net loss of $19.7 million in the third quarter that ended Sept. 30. Despite that, Baker says Hecla displayed “significant progress” toward its financial goal of eliminating revolving debt.
As for Lucky Friday, Baker says it’s an important mine in Hecla’s overall portfolio that includes a total of five mines.
“Everything is set up for Lucky Friday to operate certainly another 30 more years ... and probably another 75 more years, frankly,” Baker says. “It’s in a geologic environment where there’s going to be more ore to find.”
The price of precious metals now is higher than at any period of the strike.
As of last week, the price of gold stood at $1,555 per troy ounce, while silver was just over $18 per troy ounce. When employees went on strike near the beginning of 2017, those prices stood at $1,160 and $16, respectively.
In addition to Lucky Friday, Hecla’s other mines include the Greens Creek Mine, north of Juneau, Alaska; Casa Berardi Mine, in Quebec, Canada; San Sebastian Mine, in Durango, Mexico; and the Nevada mines Fire Creek, Midas, and Hollister, in the north central part of the state.
Greens Creek over time has emerged as the company’s leading mine as it has become the single largest revenue generator among Hecla’s five mines, Baker says.
Baker says Greens Creek has generated $2 billion for the company since the late 1990s, a stark contrast to the $500 million lost at Greens Creek in the effort to get it operating in the 10 years prior to the mine becoming profitable.
Greens Creek has produced about 600,000 ounces of gold, 300 million ounces of silver, 3 billion pounds of zinc, and 1 billion pounds of lead since Hecla bought it in 2008, Baker says.
Hecla purchased Casa Berardi, a gold mine, in 2013. At the time of purchase, the mine produced 2,000 tons of ore per day. The company has managed to double that figure, Baker says.
“We have 2 1/2 kilometers (1.5 miles) that’s completely automated,” he says.
A truck operated by computer travels at a high rate of speed through narrow shafts. It carries and unloads minerals onto an elevator, which is then hoisted to the surface.
Operations at the Nevada mines are currently on hold.
“We bought these properties thinking we could do certain things with them and just haven’t been able to,” Baker says. “We’ve decided we need to take a pause and do studies how to best operate these properties.”
Last year, a pair of shareholders filed a lawsuit against the mine claiming senior Hecla executives misrepresented the cashflow outlook of the Nevada mines and failed to notify investors of issues at the mine.
Baker declines to address specifics of the lawsuit; however, at least 10 other similar types of claims have been filed against Hecla over roughly the last decade. He says all 10 were dismissed by the individual judges reviewing each case.
“Each one of the cases is different,” Baker says. “But they generally tend to revolve around disclosure at the time of the transaction.”
At San Sebastian, the company is in the process of testing a nontraditional way of mining sulfidic material. Baker expects testing to be completed early next year.
Other Hecla properties include the Montanore project located in northwestern Montana, which is considered one of the largest undeveloped silver and copper deposits in North America.
In 2015, Hecla acquired former Spokane-based Mines Management Inc., which previously owned Montanore, and Spokane Valley-based Revett Minerals Inc. and took over Revett’s Rock Creek project, which is 10 miles from the Montanore site.
Those projects are still in the permitting phase, Baker says.
Hecla is also working with a European equipment manufacturer to develop a machine that could eliminate the need for drilling and blasting. The machine would mine hard rock by cutting it and installing ground support as it goes.
“We’re expecting to see that at the end of this year, assuming that we don’t run into things we want to change,” Baker says.
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