Iron Range jobless woes hit St. Paul gridlock

Modern Times

The Minnesota legislature prepares to convene Tuesday for a shorter-than-usual 2016 session. Lawmakers will travel to the capitol for three months of deal-making and not-so-subtle electioneering.

Here on Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, many families are preparing for a very different sort of spring. A sharp downturn in the iron ore mining business led to almost 2,000 mine layoffs last year. After more than six months, miners waiting to be called back are running out of unemployment benefits. This will continue in waves all through the early part of 2016.

This issue weighs on my world, too. Several other parents in my sons’ classes and after-school activities are directly affected by these layoffs. As an instructor at Hibbing Community College I’m preparing to teach special sections of classes designed to fit the schedule of laid-off workers as they become eligible for retraining funds.

There is some hope that Cliffs Natural Resources’ United Taconite and Northshore Mining, two of the three idled taconite mines, might reopen this year. But that remains only a hope. No date has been set. U.S. Steel’s Keewatin Taconite is in a more grim situation. Many workers there speculate on a much longer shutdown at that mine.

We’ve been talking all winter about the failed efforts to call a special session to deal specifically with extending the jobless benefits for these workers until we know more about when the mines might reopen. Republicans who opposed the special session said that the matter could be handled quickly at the start of the regular session.

But that is already in doubt. Rather than considering the jobless benefits extension as a standalone matter, House Republicans continue to tie the matter to giving rebates to corporations for unemployment taxes. In other words, the benefits that would come from the unemployment fund would also include reductions to the fund.

Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL majority in the Senate support the standalone benefits extension.

At the very least, this developing debate threatens to drag the matter through the entire session. This would leave thousands in the lurch, waiting for relief held hostage by politics.

The Mesabi Daily News reported on the issue over the weekend, citing the following eye-opening data:

The Department of Employment and Economic Development reports in the past year:

• 1,990 layoffs from mining companies at some time, including temporary workers.

• Of those employees, 1,262 have requested benefits from the state Unemployment Insurance Fund.

• 4,700 layoffs of employees of suppliers and contractors.

• Of those workers, about half will soon exhaust their benefits.

• That’s a total of 6,690 mining-related layoffs in the region (some of those are eligible for federal Trade Adjustment Assistance, and others have found different work.

This affects a huge number of people to varying degrees.

The story of hardships in mining and related fields grabs a lot of attention because people who were making a good living suddenly aren’t. But let’s not forget that there were huge structural problems in the Iron Range economy even before the 2015 iron ore price collapse. The average income is mired far lower than what people in the mines make. Indeed, Iron Range society — while by no means “rich” — is neatly divided between people who can be described as middle class, and a rather significant number of people stuck one bad month from poverty, if they aren’t there already.

Many like to cast judgement here, lamenting “outsiders” who cash in on some fictional gravy train that comes from being poor. However, the real reason for this dynamic is plain. The Iron Range economy is neither diverse nor flexible. Poverty consumes the masses. Poverty is the enemy.

Losing the good jobs amplifies the problem while making it harder to combat.


  1. Ranger47 says

    Working mines create massive middle-class wealth, no mines create massive poverty & government dependents…for those who decide to stay. The yet undefined new diverse economy creates next to nothing.

    We all agree, it’s insane that the DFL plays politics by withholding benefits from an already well-funded unemployment fund. But that’s all they know…is politics.

  2. First in line, eh Bob.

    Working mines with 20,000-plus employment — like we had after WWII — created the massive middle class on the Iron Range. Mining employment of 4,500 led to the increasing gap I describe. Right now it’s worse than that. A diversified economy creates jobs. We don’t have a diversified economy, which is why those jobs aren’t here for you to judge as inferior because a Democrat suggested it. I don’t know why those words bother you so much. Why, some of the people working in a diversified economy might even be conservatives! Engineers like you, even! They’ll be doing so well that they, too, would live in fear that liberals might take it all away.

    And the last line is a master work of Orwellian logic. Kudos for the gall to try it.

  3. Ranger47 says

    You know I have nothing against jobs Aaron, diversified or otherwise. It’s all the years of “diversified economy talk and no action” that’s wasteful and has gotten us nowhere. That, couple with the nonstop anti-mining talk and it moves to the exasperating..

  4. One good thing about the Range… no yuppies;)

    Then there are the terrible things. I barely know anyone there now. The ones that didn’t escape are dead, or started missing parole officer meetings and couldn’t escape the criminal justice system. I had a cool PO.

  5. Gerald S says

    Ken Daubt used procedural rulings from his chair to block voting on the question. This is reminiscent of GOP efforts last year to cut state Local Government Aid to Duluth and the Twin Cities, in that it is a move to financially damage areas that vote DFL. In contrast, the turkey virus problems in GOP dominated areas were a crisis that required action — and to their credit the DFL supported that relief even though its impact was in areas represented by GOPers.

  6. Ranger47 says

    Everybody loves turkeys..

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.