Steelworkers negotiations underway in Pittsburgh

worker takes a sample at steel company

United Steelworkers of AmericaAfter a spring and early summer in which Iron Range mine owners tightened belts, idled workers and sought relief from taxes and environmental regulations, now we come to a new phase of the region’s simmering crisis. This week in Pittsburgh, the United Steelworkers, the union that represents most Iron Range miners, opened negotiations with ArcelorMittal regarding the contract at the Minorca Mine near Virginia.

The Minorca is one of the smallest mines on the Iron Range but contract negotiations there will preview the negotiations for U.S. Steel and Cliffs Natural Resources, the two biggest mining companies on the Range which operate several mines. Steelworkers will learn for the first time exactly what the companies project given the continuing analysis that the price of iron will fall and stay low for at least two years. By some reports U.S. Steel, for instance, needs to cut an additional $8 per ton off its production cost to meet company goals for the coming year.

Meantime, in some Fourth of July weekend conversations I’ve learned that the laid off U.S. Steel workers at Keewatin Taconite and Minntac believe they’ll be back to work by October. That is possible, but there are many moving parts within that hopeful proposition.

For instance, what will the price of iron ore actually do? Right now it has inched back up from its total collapse last spring. Construction starts, manufacturing projections and general economic numbers in the United States look pretty good right now. However, Europe and China are swirling in separate financial crises, which will play a role in the American economy eventually.

UPDATE: Wednesday’s market collapse in China sent iron ore down to $44.10 per ton, its lowest point since the recession of the late 2000s. It was the single-biggest drop in one day in the history of tracking spot prices.

How will 40 million tons of new ore production in Australia affect the global market? Demand may increase, but so will supply. The Australians are producing ore at nearly half the cost of American mines. And they aren’t the only nation where companies are upping low-cost production.

What are the local factors? Many questions remain about Essar Steel near Nashwauk. There is no denying the fact that construction at the Essar plant has been loud and brisk all summer, with about 500 workers on site any given day. But the new mine being built by a new company to Minnesota, India’s Essar Steel, is causing other mines fits. This is in part because the state and IRRRB helped Essar get off the ground with infrastructure funding, and in part because added supply will impact demand for ore at other Range mines.

Considering that Essar claims it will produce the lowest-cost pellet in the U.S., one can see the reason for concern. Sources tell me that Cliffs wants to nip this in the bud, perhaps even seeking to buy into or take over the project somehow. Essar says it wants to run the mine alone, but it has a major loan repayment due soon and many are watching to see if they are able to cut the check.

Additionally, Essar and Cliffs are both exploring direct-reduced iron technology, adding value to iron ore products to suit new electric arc furnaces in contemporary steel mills. Iron Range mines produce taconite suited for blast furnaces, once an industry standard but that no one is building anymore and fewer companies are using at all. The entire future of Iron Range mining may well rest in the companies that successfully launch new kinds of pellet products or even flexible forms of pig iron before market forces shut down higher cost mines.

Further, Essar has been touting its off-take agreement with ArcelorMittal, replacing AM mines in Canada, as one of the central reasons Essar’s iron ore will have a new market in 2016. But that agreement was signed when iron ore prices were high. As the terms are set to expire after so many Essar construction delays, many doubt that ArcelorMittal will renew the agreement.

Which means Essar’s pellets go on the open market alongside Cliffs’ pellets. Hence the corporate kerfuffle.

That’s a lot to absorb with the news of a little mine opening negotiations with ArcelorMittal. But it bears mentioning that Arcelor-Mittal is the world’s largest steelmaker, dwarfing all the other companies on the Range. In a small world, everything is large.


This piece was cross-posted with my Up North Report blog at the StarTribune.

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