United Steelworkers to rally Thursday over contract talks

U.S. Steel’s MinnTac facility is the largest active iron ore operation in the United States, and “king” of the Iron Range mines of Northern Minnesota. Minnesota mines still produce the largest share of American iron ore. (PHOTO: U.S. Steel)

On Thursday, Aug. 30, members and supporters of the United Steelworkers will hold rallies and demonstrations across the Mesabi Iron Range. They seek to bring attention to the union’s ongoing impasse with major steelmakers over a new labor contract.

This story highlights a critical moment in the economic recovery that reached the Iron Range in 2016, restarting idled mines and ending hundreds of worker layoffs. Companies record enormous profits amid high prices for steel. Workers wonder whether they’ll share in that prosperity.

The union described ArcelorMittal’s recent counterproposal as “unacceptable” and U.S. Steel’s as “an insult.” The Steelworkers seek pay increases and restoration of concessions on health care and retirement plans made during the last contract.

One of the sticking points seems to be whether pay raises would be in cash or in profit-sharing, which would limit the benefit during any future downturn. And the union continues describing the companies’ offers on health care as concessions.

America’s steel industry, from the mines in Minnesota to the mills out East, represents a good example of the way that global trade, automation, and supercharged corporate profit motive have collided in the Midwest region. Companies seek to shed legacy costs — to survive during down times and to soak profits during good times. These mature contacts with the United Steelworkers produce significant legacy costs.

A large rally will be held at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Miner’s Memorial Building in Virginia. Another demonstration at Keewatin Taconite’s USW union hall will happen at 3 p.m.. Plant gate demonstrations are planned at other mines.

The Steelworkers’ contracts with U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal expire Sept. 1. The contract with Cleveland-Cliffs expires on Oct. 1. That leaves little time until workers face a critical decision. Prepare for a strike or continue working under a stop-gap agreement?

Much political attention has been paid to President Trump’s trade policies, especially his large tariffs on foreign steel and other products. The results have been good for steelmakers, but bad for manufacturers of steel products. Consumers have yet to realize the corresponding price increases, but will soon.

Miners on the Iron Range ask whether industry success in corporate boardrooms will reach the pits at MinnTac before economic fortunes might change.

CORRECTION: I’ve amended the expiration of the current labor contracts to reflect differences among the companies. An earlier version of this post also had the right day but wrong date.

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