Francis Heck sits slumped in the small living room of his tidy, two-story yellow house near Rose Lake. He is resting from a 3,000-mile, five-state trek in which he slept in his car, filled out countless job applications and found openings nowhere.
Fatigue and resignation have dampened some of his anger. But mention the events of Jan. 17, 18 and 19 and it all pours back into his voice--the frustration and astonishment when he discovered that his union was going to keep him and 1,500 of his coworkers from returning to their jobs at the Bunker Hill Co., and turn Kellogg into a ghost town.
As the nationwide recession deepens, workers and unions in the automobile and other industries are staving off unemployment by accepting pay freezes or cuts, but when workers tried that in this town that once produced a quarter of the nation's refined lead, zinc and silver, their union wouldn't let them.
The bitterness of the remarkable clash between the men of Bunker Hill and the United Steelworkers union poisons the atmosphere here now as severely as the fumes that poured for years out of Bunker Hill's 715-foot-high lead mill smokestack.
"It should never have happened. It was stupid. It was dumb," Heck said.
On Jan. 17, Heck and his fellow workers at the mine and refining plant thought they had saved the troubled company by voting to accept 25 percent pay cuts and go to work for a group of local investors who promised to reopen the plant that had closed just two weeks before.
On Jan. 18, they learned that the steelworkers union leadership had refused to honor the workers' vote. The union's leaders insist they saved their workers from a bad contract, and they still hope Bunker Hill will reopen with the help of a new buyer.
But that is no longer the prevailing opinion in Kellogg. Gary Beck, manager of the Idaho department of employment office here, said, "This town almost went up in an explosion" of worker violence the day the vote was overruled. An avalanche of anti-union feeling erupted in what had been a heavily union town, but is now one more casualty of the economic blight that low demand for minerals and lumber have brought to the lovely hills of the northwestern United States.
Kellogg, a one-industry town with a population of 3,600, could vanish. Beck said his office normally processes 300 or 400 unemployment claims this time of year. Instead, he has 1,600, and with the price of silver at its lowest point in two years, he expects many more.
Dixie Lee Laehn, wife of a 10-year veteran of the Bunker Hill plant, paces around her living room a few blocks from the unused company rail trestles, still furious over what she feels the steelworkers union has done to the town that has been her home.
"When a majority rule no longer counts in America, we're in deep trouble. We may as well pack it up and head for the Soviet Union," Laehn said. "We're fighting our guts out here just to survive. And big shots clear back in Pittsburgh are using us as an example that unions are Big Brother."
Laehn, 37, a former Army nurse, finds money so tight she has had to cut off her telephone and put to sleep five pet dogs, many left by friends who have already moved out of the area. She and her husband, Clifford, took a bus to Spokane about 70 miles away to look for jobs. They were amazed to find the bus full.
"I wondered, were people doing so well they could take vacations? But when you get to talking to them, you find out they are people who are just crawling from one town to the next, looking for work . . . and just think that my husband and all those others could have still had jobs here."
Clifford Laehn is a small, energetic man with a few teeth missing and a tendency to let his wife do the talking. He is restless. Each morning he rises at 3:30 to help deliver the local paper, getting in return only a free subscription and a sense of having accomplished something that day.
When the Laehns' daughter, Melanie, 11, finishes the spring term at the Silver Valley Baptist School, the family plans to head for the Sun Belt--"Denver, Phoenix, whatever places have the lowest unemployment rates," Dixie Lee Laehn said. Francis Heck is heading that way also in a new job search through Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Clifford Laehn made $30,000 last year. Heck made about $26,000. Both must now live on $145 a week in unemployment benefits, the equivalent of $7,500 a year.
Kellogg businessmen like Dale Farlee, owner of the Silverhorn Motor Inn, meet regularly now to think of ways to save the town. Farlee said his own business has declined about 33 percent, but his group, the Greater Kellogg Development Corp., has a nibble for a "major aircraft stamping plant" to be established here. Another group of small merchants, Silver Valley Forever, has suggested improving the local ski run, once called "Jackass" but rechristened "Silverhorn," or building some sort of theme park to attract tourists.
The town sits on Interstate 90, the most direct road from Seattle to Chicago, seemingly a natural spot for a thriving business. But the almost abandoned Bunker Hill plant in the center of town is an eyesore of rusting metal and black slag heaps. Fire and pollution have denuded hills on either side of the narrow valley. A first-time visitor wonders if the raw look is natural for a mountain town in winter, but Beck explains: "The smelter has so polluted the ground that hardly anything will grow."
Bunker Hill had been known for the loyalty of its employes, who stayed with the work there longer than at most mine and smelter operations. When the bulk of the workers was dismissed Dec. 31, Beck said, "I had more than 60 or 70 people in here with an average of 30 years with the company. It was something to see."
It was Aug. 25 that Clifford Laehn came out of the plant and heard that Gulf Resources and Chemical Corp., shaken by the plant's losses, could not find a buyer and was going to close it. "I just sat in my car and everything just left me," he said. "It was the loneliest, emptiest feeling I've ever felt in my life."
By November, a group of local investors led by Duane Hagadone, a publisher and real estate investor based in nearby Coeur d'Alene, was trying to buy Gulf's interest in the plant. Bunker Hill would cost about $65 million, but losses for 1982 were projected at about $40 million. The investors could not control the volatile prices on the metal markets. They could only finance the deal if they negotiated a substantial cut in labor costs.
They presented the workers with a five-year plan that would have meant an initial 25 percent cut in wages and benefits for many, weaken seniority rules and provide jobs for only about 1,500 of the plant's 2,100 workers.
The leaders of United Steelworkers of America Local 7854 recommended against it. But at a climactic vote the night of Jan. 17, members of the nine plant craft unions, including the steelworkers, voted 695 to 506 to accept the local investors' proposal. Many went home to celebrate, thinking they had saved their jobs. They were stunned the next day when they turned on their radios to hear that the local's newly appointed administrator, Lavern Melton, had refused to sign the agreement. The investors had no legal labor agreement which they could show to banks planning to finance the purchase, and the deal was dead.
"When I heard that my vote didn't count, it took me half an hour to get to the union hall to find out why," Heck said. An angry crowd had gathered outside and was berating Melton as sheriff's deputies watched nervously for any outbreak of violence. "Get it signed and get it over there," someone shouted at Melton. He replied: "We're not signing a blank check."
"Go back to Pittsburgh!" someone said. Melton pointed out that he was from Wallace, not far away. "Your soul is Pittsburgh, not this valley. They own you. They own your soul," a member of the crowd shouted.
Finally the workers were allowed into the union hall for an informal meeting and a flamboyant official from the Pittsburgh headquarters, Andrew Coban, addressed the throng. "I don't care if you starve me, kill me, castrate me, rape me. It just doesn't matter," Heck said Coban told them. "I'm not initialing those contracts."
Heck recalls he kept "yelling and screaming at union officials. I got really, really involved, which I seldom do." But nothing changed. The unhappy orkers voted in a new slate of local officers, and the new officers signed the five-year wage proposal. But attorneys for the Hagadone group concluded that would not be enough. The existing labor agreement at the plant was with the steelworkers, and the hasty election of new officers could easily be overturned in court.
Robert Petris, the western district director for the Steelworkers Union, said any suggestion the union leadership caused the workers to lose their jobs "is a bunch of bull." He said the union leadership made it clear from the start that the Jan. 17 vote was only advisory. The union leadership, he said, had to have a chance to negotiate a contract with the Hagadone group before they could sign anything. Instead, the union was presented with a take-it-or-leave-it offer that weakened health and pension benefits under the contract with Gulf, Petris said.
Hagadone and many of the displaced Bunker Hill workers argue the union leadership felt accepting a 25 percent pay cut in Kellogg would hurt in negotiations elsewhere. "The only conclusion we have drawn is that the language we had proposed would set a precedent that they could not live with for the balance of their membership," Hagadone said.
Petris and Melton say they have saved their members from a bad contract and hold out the hope that new investors with better proposals will materialize. Martin Baral, an Australian who serves as managing director of Expo Oil Co., said his firm is considering reopening Bunker Hill and finds the Steelworkers' representatives "most helpful and businesslike."
But Robert Bowman, a vice president for Gulf in Houston, Tex., said initial contacts with Expo Oil have not developed into formal negotiations.
Meanwhile, other mines in the area continue to lay off workers and even those job-seekers who travel far beyond Idaho come back empty-handed.
Heck's two-week trip took him to an aluminum plant in Goldendale, Wash., an aluminum plant in Dalles, Ore., a pumice-crushing plant in Bend, Ore., a shale mine in southern Idaho, two mining companies in Salt Lake City, oil fields in Evanston and Rock Spring, Wyo., a mining company in Green River, Wyo., and an oil field in Caspar, Wyo.
"They all said no," Heck said. A private employment officer in Denver said they would have charged $2,500 to $3,000 to find a job for someone with Heck's experience as an operator of overhead cranes and other equipment. "I told them to stuff it," he said.
Lillian Heck sells cosmetics door to door, and with some part-time teaching and weight watcher class instruction can make as much as $9,000 in a good year. But she said she is as eager to move on as her husband is.
"A lot of people are moving back with their parents," Heck said. "But I have a lot of pride. I think I'll tax all my resources before I do that . . . and I'll try to make sure I'm never in a place where a union can do this to me again."