White House chief of staff to visit Iron Range

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough will meet with laid off miners and local officials on the Mesabi Iron Range on Dec. 22, 2015. (Flickr CC)

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough will meet with laid off miners and local officials on the Mesabi Iron Range on Dec. 22, 2015. (Flickr CC)

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is coming to the Iron Range on Tuesday, Dec. 22. He will meet with laid off miners, local officials and others affected by the ongoing downturn in the local economy. These factors have been caused by a glut of global steel supply and cheap foreign imports.

I have been trying to decide the appropriate humorous reference for this occasion. There’s “Waiting for Guffman,” the Christopher Guest film in which residents of a struggling small town seek fame and fortune by doing a play for a Broadway critic who may or may not attend the performance. Or there’s “Waiting for Godot,” an absurdist play by Samuel Beckett in which two characters wait endlessly for an important person who never shows, highlighting the meaninglessness of life, or perhaps the absolutist nature of ethics, or something else that a local MFA student could talk about a little too long.

Fundamentally “Waiting for McDonough” is a headline that will amuse only seven or eight people, so I abstained.

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN8), Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Al Franken (D-MN), and Gov. Mark Dayton (D-MN) have been lobbying President Obama for much of the year to address trade issues causing catastrophic market conditions for Iron Range mines. Rep. Nolan’s office announced the visit in a recent joint press release.

“This meeting is a critical step forward in our fight to get the Iron Range back to work,” Congressman Rick Nolan said in the press release. “I’m gratified that the President has given his personal attention to the crisis by sending his most trusted and most senior advisor to the Range to hear directly from those affected. This year alone, over 2,000 steelworkers in Minnesota have lost their jobs as a result of foreign producers dumping low-cost subsidized steel into our country – and unless constructive action is taken now, miners and steelworkers in Minnesota and across the country will soon face even more layoffs.”

Dayton, Klobuchar and Franken offered similar thoughts.

I doubt President Obama would send his Chief of Staff here unless he planned to do something to address the foreign steel dumping. The question is how much can he really do?

The crisis in the steel industry (and resulting sub crisis in the mining industry) has many causes. The most obvious is the dumping of foreign steel, most of which comes from China. But deeper beneath that problem is an enormous increase in cheaper global supply of iron ore. Cheaper ore. Cheaper steel. American producers are simply losing the market battle on this one.

The United States can and should better protect its steel industry. We are in stark danger of losing the industry itself and a country like ours can’t rely on foreign sources of steel in times of peril.

That being said, we also need to prepare for the fact that our steel and mining industries will be smaller, more efficient and more automated as a response to the global pricing crunch. To some extent, we are in an endless argument over a moot point.

The President does, however, have the power to keep our steel crisis from getting worse. McDonough will certainly recevie that message on Tuesday and one hopes the visit will lead to a positive response.

Nevertheless, only innovation within the mining industry and economic diversification outside the mining industry can actually improve our region’s economy in the long run.

We can’t afford to wait too long for anyone, be it Guffman, Godot, McDonough or Obama.


  1. To me this is all bullshit. If the managers of US Steel and the others were honest and competent, they would have been raising the alarm a couple of years ago “This is happening and the consequences will be thus and so….unless….” Rather, they started bleating about dumping and unreasonable environmental regulation and greedy unions at the same time they started curtailing operations….

    I suspect there is a case to be made for maintaining a US steel industry in being as a matter of “national security,” but this case is not being made, certainly not by Nolan and the others.

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