The dislocated workers we choose to ignore

The Irongate Mall as seen in 2018. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

Aaron J. Brown

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

NEWS FLASH: Officials today announced the shutdown of a major taconite mine on the Mesabi Iron Range. More than 700 workers will lose their jobs in the midst of an uncertain future for their industry.

Here on the Iron Range, stories like this get our attention. We’ve been through them before. Everyone knows what to do, from the laid off miners to the counselors at the job training office. The politicians stand ready to help. They hold rallies and call hearings. Thousands come from near and far to stand up for jobs. Unemployment benefits extend ad infinitum. A pox on anyone who stands in our way.

Invariably, the unity of purpose wanes as the mine calls people back to work. Fewer people then before, but who’s counting? (No really, who is counting?) Everything goes back to normal, until the next time.

But let me ask you this. What if we weren’t talking about a mine? What if we weren’t talking about one business, but hundreds? And what if I told you that 700 jobs was just the beginning, and that those jobs are never, ever coming back?

Because I’m talking about the retail industry. See, there was no big announcement that the Irongate Mall was going to turn into a cavernous hall of echoes; it just happened slowly over two decades. We got news that the Younkers/Herberger’s parent company was shutting down and then gradually realized that this mean the Virginia Herberger’s and Duluth Younkers stores — anchors of their malls — would close forever. Same with the Hibbing J.C. Penney’s and Sears. Same with the malls and downtowns before that.

Even so, we tend to see these stories from a customer’s point of view. We lose a place to shop. But what’s often forgotten is how workers and local ownership bear the brunt of these corporate and consumer changes.

First, an important fact. While traditional retail stores are shedding jobs, e-commerce — sites like are creating new ones. In fact, these new jobs pay up to 25 percent better, according to “The Silent Crisis of Retail Employment,” an April 18, 2017 story by Derek Thompson in the The Atlantic — often in customer service or order fulfillment (a fancy term for loading and unloading boxes in a warehouse).

The problem for us here in Northern Minnesota is that those kinds of jobs gravitate toward major metropolitan areas. It surprises no one that Hibbing won’t be the location of Amazon’s second national headquarters. Neither will Duluth. Not even Minneapolis proved successful, and they made a serious effort.

So places like ours pay the price of a changing economy, but fail to realize most of the direct benefits. Sure, Amazon can put a stylish suit of clothes and a specific car part on my porch in rural Itasca County. But that only works if I have a job that allows me to afford it.

The term we often hear after a layoff is “displaced worker.” That’s an important phrase, all the more apt in our times. We want displaced workers to find new jobs (especially if we are the displaced worker). But these new jobs are tricky, shape-shifting affairs that require a lifetime of learning. The kids coming up the pike will adapt to these changes, but we must develop a strategy for those left out of the picture.

The cold reality is that the automation and technological changes that have affected mining employment are revolutionizing most other industries, too. Some jobs we once considered mainstays of our economy will leave, never to return. Malls and even box stores will soon become far less common, perhaps even extinct.

But in this, we must learn that this new economy will never be fair unless we treat the laid-off retail worker the same way we treat the laid-off miner. Both might be parents whose children attend our schools. Both are taxpayers, potential homeowners and consumers. And both face a loss of income that could devastate dependents.

The jobs are different. The people are different. But make no mistake, it’s all part of the same problem.

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, May 20, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. David Gray says

    I think those of us who live in rural Minnesota, particularly those of us with a greater stake in the future (what we call children), need to attempt to support local retailers. Amazon Prime is very helpful for those of us far from large cities but if I can buy an item locally I make an effort to do so. I want something to be left and someone to be in business when children become adults. Even within rural Minnesota there is a hierarchy. I try to support local small town businesses here on the Cuyuna Range before I go to shop at the larger stores in Brainerd. If it costs a bit more it is, in part, an investment.

  2. What’s the deal with the “News Flash”at the beginning of the article?

    • If you read on, you see that I use it to illustrate the difference between public reaction when a single employer lays off a bunch of people all at once and when an entire industry changes over time, laying off the same number of people in the same area. It’s an attention getting device.

  3. Ben Kempa says

    The 10,000 foot view here is that what retail and many other sectors are experiencing is the inevitable outcome of capitalism. You cannot march towards 100% efficiency forsaking all ethical actions for corporate profits without hitting a tipping point where you have no more middle class. If we continue on this path, wage growth will further stagnate…..wealth concentration will continue to accelerate and eventually we will have a small class of elites and everyone else who is dependent upon whatever the said elites decide to pass down. I think the reality is the eventual advent of Artificial Intelligence makes the whole conversation moot but in the meantime that doesn’t keep people fed and able to buy the products we depend upon. This whole entire issue is exacerbated by hyper-consumerism. Its a chicken and egg argument trying to decide if the average US citizen brought this on ourselves with our insatiable lust for cheap shiny objects to fill out life with……or if offshoring and exploitation of foreign slave labor brought us these cheap good and made us into slaves to consumerism. Either way , if we cannot put people to work making the goods we consume then we will fail. We need a viable middle class and that has to built on a base of manufacturing. People being paid living wages and purchasing the products we all build. This is the only way to stave off the collapse of the current economic system.

  4. “[W]e must learn that this new economy will never be fair unless we treat the laid-off retail worker the same way we treat the laid-off miner.”

    What if instead of focusing all of our efforts on propping up dying industries, we were to educate Range students and displaced workers that there are a rapidly growing class of entry-level positions (just like the retail ones that are leaving) at legitimate corporations that can be worked from a high-speed internet connection available in their Hibbing home? What if we asked our politicians to provide incentives to attract new businesses to the Range instead of spending that money as one-off expense every time market forces displace our workforce?

    I can appreciate the desire to protect our displaced retail workforce from the narrative we are all too familiar with in the mining industry, but maybe we are all too familiar with that narrative because the “solution” we keep applying is not effective in the long run.

    • I think that’s precisely what I’ve been writing about here. I don’t mean “save Penney’s.” I mean we need a policy to help this region and the many different kinds of displaced workers thrive in a new reality.

  5. Rylan Bachman says

    Not cool using a click bait – fake news flash.

  6. Gray Camp says

    While the iron range has lost retail employees to companies such as JCPennys, Sears, K-Mart, Herbergers, Peebles, etc, they have also gained retail employees to such companies as WalMart, Menards, Lowes, Walgreens, L&M, etc. Probably a net loss over the past decade or two, but not as bad as if you just look at the losses without looking at the gains. Definitely some retail business has been lost world-wide to online retailers – but this has also resulted in new delivery jobs…

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