The hope and woes of Iron Range special session

E. Dewey Albinson: Northern Minnesota Mine, 1934, IMAGE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Flickr CC

The E. Dewey Albinson oil painting, “Northern Minnesota Mine,” 1934, IMAGE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Flickr CC

Before Friday, chances for a special session to address expiring unemployment benefits for laid-off Iron Range miners seemed bleak. Today, state leaders express more optimism. Nevertheless, with the clock ticking, legislative leaders have very little time to plan before some Iron Range miners will lose their benefits.

At issue is the fact that Minnesota’s legislative session will start late this year due to finishing touches on the Capitol remodeling project.

Before the holidays, Gov. Mark Dayton called for a session to address two problems: 1) the expiring benefits for miners and 2) economic disparities in communities of color, an issue raised in numerous protests and economic analyses in 2015. Later, it appeared that urgent action would be needed to allow Minnesotans to board domestic flights using state drivers licenses. However, the Real ID issue was given a two-year reprieve by the federal government.

Naturally, DFLers, including Senate Majority Leader and Iron Range State Sen. Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook) agreed in principle. House Speaker Kurt Daudt (R-Mound) balked, however. Republicans were skeptical about the urgency of both issues. They also wanted to secure guarantees from the governor that he would support permitting for controversial projects including the nonferrous mine PolyMet and the Sandpiper pipeline.

Last week, work groups met in St. Paul to negotiate these issues. Those hearings concluded in a general sense of ambiguity. On Friday, Dayton, Bakk and Daudt met and emerged with a much more hopeful outlook.

From J. Patrick Coolican’s Star Tribune story:

“There’s a lot of hurdles yet, but I think the important part is that we’re going to continue to work together and talk and have the working groups meet to try to make progress,” [Daudt] said.

Daudt’s optimism contrasted from Thursday, when Republican legislators expressed skepticism that a special session is necessary, especially considering that legislators will come into regular session March 8. They also accused the DFL of playing politics and not having enough concrete proposals.

Earlier in the week, Daudt and Dayton traded barbs about failing to lead.

Dayton said that he was encouraged by legislators’ work this week and that he hoped to see more progress and a potential agreement.

“We had a constructive meeting, a cordial meeting,” he said. “It’s a matter for legislative leaders to decide they will either commit to a special session or determine it’s not feasible, so I’ll defer on that.”

So, it’s not a “no,” but it’s certainly not yet a “yes.”

To see the news, one would gather that these unemployment benefits and foreign steel dumping are the top political concerns of most Iron Rangers. They certainly are for those working in mining or related fields, but the truth is more complex.

The tricky part about unemployment benefits for miners is the fact that mines routinely shut down and reopen. Unlike construction work, however, these patterns follow market conditions that often last longer than a winter. Since the miners would happily go back to work as soon as they are called, taking a different job or even starting new training is a difficult decision. There are jobs. Just not on the Iron Range.

This is a good reminder that, outside of mining, there are far fewer non-mining jobs on the Iron Range that would comfortably support a family. The struggle facing miners losing their benefits is the struggle far more people here face every day.

I’ve talked to a number of friends, students, and family members — some would call them “working poor” — resentful over the fact that the state legislature will bend over backwards for people who take home more than $60,000 a year when they make 20 grand and must choose between paying rising rents and going to college to get a better job that, I remind, doesn’t exist here.

When you look at our problems this way, you might come to my conclusion that little PolyMet and its 350 potential jobs (also subject to the whims of a collapsing commodities market) is merely balm on a gaping economic wound.

A special session won’t fix this, but broader economic failures deserve special effort by leaders and especially citizens of the Iron Range. In the near term, helping the miners’ families might remain the best policy. But long term solutions will require more innovation, more work, and more collaboration than we see now.

Help the miners. But don’t stop there. We must build a sustainable economy. That’s the real crisis.


  1. You’re correct Aaron, “a special session won’t fix this”. It’d be a waste of time and money to have one. Plus, hardworking Rangers don’t want an unemployment check, it’s insulting to them.

  2. Too obvious trolling, Ranger. Maybe you should ask those hardworking Rangers how insulted they’d be to get an unemployment check.

  3. The diverse circle of Rangers I know today and grew up with are ashamed to accept the handouts of their neighbors kissa. They know getting free stuff is wrong. But, it’s sent to them so they cash the check, they’d be foolish not to. Down deep, they’re embarrassed.

  4. Unemployment insurance is funded by taxes paid by the employers for employees who are out of work due to no fault of their own. I can understand that miners and others who are unemployed now without a paycheck, a circumstance totally out of their control, are experiencing a lot of worry, stress and frustration but they should not be feeling embarrassed or ashamed on top of that. There is no logical reason to be unless some have internalized the american myth of the totally self-reliant human, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps needing no assistance from anyone else. There is not one human being, now or ever, that has not received some help or benefit from others, their communities, etc in their lifetimes or given it or the human race wouldn’t have survived.

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