Montana's largest mining company reaches tentative labor agreement with union workers

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BILLINGS, Montana — Montana's largest mining company announced a tentative labor agreement with about 900 workers on Thursday, setting up a vote next week by union members bitter over recent pay raises for some executives.

There would be no wage cuts under the proposed deal, but some pay incentives for miners would change, said United Steelworkers International Union local president Scott McGinnis.

"You don't always get everything you want. But neither do they," McGinnis said, referring to the company's management.

Stillwater operates the only two platinum and palladium mines in the U.S., beneath the Beartooth Mountains southwest of Billings. It employs roughly 1,600 people.

Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer has served as chairman of the company's board of directors since 2013, soon after he completed his second term and left office.

The labor agreement covers workers at Stillwater's mine near Nye and its smelter and refinery complex in Columbus.

Union members will vote June 4 and June 5 on whether to accept the deal. Previous labor disputes involving the company prompted hundreds of workers to go on strike in 2004 and 2007.

The current contract with the union was scheduled to expire June 1 but was extended for another week to allow for a vote on the proposed agreement.

In recent months, Chief Executive Officer Michael "Mick" McMullen, who joined the company at the same time as Schweitzer, has sought to slash costs to keep Stillwater competitive with platinum and palladium mines in South Africa and Russia.

Platinum prices fell more than 25 percent over the past year amid a worldwide slump in commodities ranging from precious metals to oil.

Stillwater spokeswoman Jennifer Lawson declined comment Thursday.

During negotiations with the company, union members said they resisted attempts to change their pay structure — and became outraged following revelations that McMullen received an 8 percent raise in 2015, bumping his base salary to $712,000.

McMullen's 2014 total compensation topped $3.5 million, making him the highest paid CEO in Montana, according to company filings with federal regulators and a report released earlier this month by the AFL-CIO.

Shares of Stillwater on the New York Stock Exchange rose more than 4 percent in afternoon trading Thursday, to $14.35.

A second contract covering workers at Stillwater's East Boulder mine south of Big Timber is scheduled to expire at the end of the year.

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