One of the most acrimonious labor disputes in Utah history may be about to end. A union source who asked for anonymity confirmed to City Weekly that Kennecott Utah Copper and its parent company Rio Tinto have come to a tentative agreement on a new contract with the bargaining committee composed of seven unions representing 1,300 workers. Details such as length of the contract, salary issues and health benefits were not available, but the source did confirm that Kennecott’s demand to be able to contract out union jobs to nonunion workers was not part of the proposed contract.
This was not a strike—the workers stayed on the job after KUC unilaterally implemented its final contract offer Oct. 1—but we have to ask: Why was this rift necessary? The company is highly profitable, with KUC reporting a $78 million profit last year on revenues of $755 million. The concessions KUC sought from its workers would only have increased those profits at the expense of its workers, not rescued the company from financial distress.
So why settle now? We’d like to think it is shame and chagrin on the part of company management, but that’s unlikely. Perhaps it has something to do with a protective order issued June 9 by the Utah Tax Commission. The company sought the order to keep the lid on Salt Lake County’s appeal of the state’s drastic reduction of KUC’s 2002 tax assessment.
Between 2001 and 2003, KUC’s property assessment dropped by more than half, from $1.18 billion to $513 million, contributing to county budget deficits. The result has been a heavier burden on average taxpayers and reduced county services. With an end to the standoff, that issue may be more easily concluded in the company’s favor without the glare of union attempts to shed light on company finances.
For the workers, the end of the dispute will be happy news, although it did not come in time to reach union members gathered at the annual AFL-CIO convention in Salt Lake City on June 13. Looking at the glum faces of the delegates in that room, I was reminded of how difficult it must be to be a union member in the state that shot Joe Hill.
There is a lack of understanding by the public of the crucial role organized labor plays in protecting the rights of all workers. Unions exist to collectively bargain for and defend contracts. No individual worker has the bargaining leverage to stand up to corporate power, and without the standards provided by union contracts over the years, many nonunion workers in this country would not enjoy the level of wages and benefits they do. The seven-and-a-half-month struggle by Kennecott workers for a decent contract should serve as a reminder that such benefits do not come without cost.
For a hundred years, Kennecott workers and their predecessors at the Utah Copper Co. have been a crucial component in the economic prosperity of Utah. If the company decides to dig underground after the pit ore runs out in 2012, another generation of workers stands to benefit. A partnership between the unions and management will be a lot easier if good-faith bargaining can rule the day in the future, rather than trying to unilaterally impose contracts.