Union works past deadline, but prepares for strike

Workers picket at the Minorca Mine gate Thursday. (PHOTO: United Steelworkers)

All the mines on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range run hot today, despite the expiration of labor contracts at facilities owned by U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal last night.

The United Steelworkers of America agreed to stay on the job while negotiations continue. The union represents workers at mines and mills throughout the North American steel industry.

Those negotiations aren’t going well, according to the union. Just today, the USW issued a statement saying that another offer from U.S. Steel still calls for concessions, despite signs of strength in the domestic steel industry.

The union argues that expensive concessions in health care coverage would negate the small pay increases offered by the company. Further, the union already gave concessions during the steel industry downturn three years ago. They want the new contract to reflect changes in the bottom line.

As a result, negotiations continue. The Steelworkers are officially preparing for a strike or a company lockout, which are possible outcomes if contract talks don’t improve soon.

It’s not clear what a labor stoppage would mean to the recovering but fragile economy in Northern Minnesota. It’s also unclear how long a strike or lockout might last. I get a sense that most miners would prefer taking the first good offer from the companies. The question is how much the companies want to try their luck in weakening the resolve of union negotiators.

I’ll have a post later this week exploring the health of U.S. Steel. It’s possible that the economic recovery is more cosmetic than some would like to believe. Nevertheless, plenty of money flows through the pipes these days. The union position is understandable.

Iron Range facilities that would be affected include U.S. Steel’s properties at Minntac in Mountain Iron and Keewatin Taconite, and ArcelorMittal’s Minorca Mine in Virginia.

The Steelworkers are also negotiating with Cleveland-Cliffs. That contract doesn’t expire until Oct. 1.

Cliffs employs union miners at Hibbing Taconite, which it operates, and United Taconite in Eveleth, which it owns.

Cliffs also owns and operates the Northshore Mine in Babbitt and Silver Bay. That facility is non-union and won’t be affected by the labor dispute. However, labor conditions at that mine remain heavily influenced by what happens at the majority of union mines.

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