Automation on the industrial frontier

Reclaimed mineland near the the Minntac plant in Mt. Iron, MN, in 2015. PHOTO: James St. John, Flickr CC

Reclaimed mineland near the the Minntac plant in Mt. Iron, MN, in 2015. PHOTO: James St. John, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Labor Day on the Iron Range means more than just the last big car race up at the Hibbing Raceway, though that is without doubt a big deal. Here, Labor Day celebrates the broken bodies and fighting spirit of pioneering loggers, miners and entrepreneurs. Their sacrifices slowly built a better world and a better workforce for future generations.

And yet Iron Range unemployment is nearly twice state levels, a fact that has been true for my entire adult life. When the mines go down, it’s bad for everyone. When the mines come back, it’s good for some but not all. This is not new. This is old.

One fact that often startles people is that, roughly speaking, Minnesota iron mines produce the same amount of ore as they did during the heyday of the 1970s taconite boom. Moreover, the ore is better, more refined and better suited for steelmaking. With sufficient investment Minnesota mines could produce ore for the most sophisticated steel furnaces on the market for many decades, perhaps longer.

Yet mines employ less than a third of that 1970s workforce. Iron Range population and school enrollments have fallen to nearly half what they were then. There is no sign that this will improve much, even under the most optimistic projections. As the saying goes, “Good work, if you can get it.”

It is fashionable to blame global trade. That’s the topic of choice in our Congressional and Presidential debates. Certainly, global trade brought about many immediate problems related to the supply and demand of Minnesota products. When mines shut down or idle for long periods, trade is a likely factor.

But global trade alone certainly did not cause the cataclysmic loss of jobs since 1980. Much of it, for a multitude of reasons, relates to automation. Any longtime miner knows the story. Bigger trucks. Bigger shovels. Entire systems run by half a dozen people. The mines don’t hire “laborers” anymore. They hire “operators.” Automation saved the industry, while devastating the communities surrounding it.

This phenomena only grows. Remote control production trucks and shovels, now being tested and used in Australia, will one day reach the Iron Range. Shifts run tight, and companies hire people who know how to work the new toys. One company brags that it incorporates the knowledge of retiring control room operators into “virtual reality” systems that can be used by less experienced replacements.

Automation hits far more than mining. An Alan Boyle story on showed that U.S. manufacturers are producing record output while shedding jobs.

In most states, the job title held by the most people is “truck driver.” Yet we know from pop technology news that some of the world’s best minds direct their efforts toward building roads traversed by driverless vehicles. Ford just invested in a company that produces 3D imaging for driverless cars. Exciting, until you consider the millions of unemployed truck drivers perhaps just a few years from now.

Historian Pam Brunfelt coined the term “industrial frontier” to describe Minnesota’s iron ranges. This area is isolated and remote, yet stands as the fulcrum of American industrial power. The sign on the edge of the small town of Taconite, Minnesota appropriately reads “Hub of the Nation.”

Yet the value of the ore from the ground didn’t come from the dollars that went to New York. The true value emerged in the labor of our parents, the hands that built steel, goods, roads, bridges and buildings. The rise of this new middle class built a United States that, despite what you’ve heard, still leads the world.

Consider, then, this excerpt from “New technology, automation to help miners survive commodity prices rout,” a story by Cecilia Jamasmie:

“While some job loses will inevitably come with the incorporation of more technology, some believe the change is positive, as it can create more interesting positions while making lower-skilled posts obsolete,” writes Jamasmie.

Interesting? Indeed, these are interesting times, especially if you find yourself on the wrong end of the stick.

The question this Labor Day is more complex than “How do we honor workers?” or even “How do we stop globalization?” The question becomes, “How will we maintain the intrinsic value of labor in a world that robotized our grandparents’ work?”

“Solidarity forever” takes on new meaning in this changing landscape. A raised fist once inspired the masses. Now we must raise our minds. The challenge looms every bit as daunting as the one Iron Range ancestors faced as they stared down hunger and the rifle butts of the Pinkerton men. The challenge burns in the heart of our communities and ourselves.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. Brian in Minneapolis says

    Beautiful column. I’m in the transport industry and trade industry and have been and always will be sympathetic to the plight of truckers. Trucking has been an industry that has allowed many poor and immigrant families to build lives and small businesses – and yes, sometimes empires. I worry about the trucking industry and other industries like it. And I worry about the decent people all over the country that I’ve worked with over the years. I hope they – and we – can adapt.

    Happy labor day to all.

  2. It’s good to acknowledge the nostalgic hard, back-breaking labor that once dominated the Range and celebrate with open arms the more mindful labor saving technology which has and will continue to replace it.

  3. And no matter which way we do it, we continue to pollute our water, create a landscape of open pits, tailings basins, and wasterock piles, while eroding away the edges of our towns.
    No solutions in sight there.

    • Independant says

      Amen. Lets stop all mining and commercial farming starting next Monday. The world will be a much better place and we can all nibble aspen leaves and stare blankly at the horizon.

      • Yeah, clean drinking water is worthless. We don’t need it to survive.

        • Independant says

          Absolutely agree. Those aspen leaves are incredibly bitter and we will need the clean drinking water to wash them down.

          • Man, you are a terrible outdoorsman. There are much better survival foods out there than aspen leaves. If that’s what you’d choose to eat, you deserve to die.

  4. Globalization has been happening throughout the world for decades, at an accelerating pace. Technology and globalization have allowed for many new efficiencies allowing for smaller costs of production with smaller numbers of employees. This isn’t a new thing, and it isn’t isolated to NE Minnesota. The people and communities who are able to adapt to it and “add value” to the world and the world market are the ones who are and who will continue to be successful. Some people have been very successful in globalization. Others have revolted to try and put the globalization genie back in the bottle, but at this point, it doesn’t seem possible.

    “How will we maintain the intrinsic value of labor in a world that robotized our grandparents’ work?” We can adapt. The first step is understanding the globalized world we live in and the second is discovering ways we can individually and as a community add value to it. Hard and smart work will be rewarded.

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