Labor Daze on the Iron Range

Workers and families parade through downtown Hibbing during the 1916 Industrial Workers of the World strike on the Mesabi Iron Range. (PHOTO: Minnesota Historical Society Collection)

I feel bad that I’m not posting more often about what’s going on around the Iron Range these days. Hip deep in writing my book and teaching remotely I just don’t have time to whip up posts like I once did.

As a result these events keep happening and the social arbiter of it all appears to be the fever swamp of Facebook groups and the scorched-earth hellscape of online news comments. Unfortunately, I don’t think that I could stave that off even if I tried.

But a number of remarkable things happened in August. Jen McEwen beat Eric Simonson in the DFL primary for Duluth’s state senate seat. This was a highly successful insurgency from the progressive base against a moderate incumbent, one with close ties to unions, especially the building trades.

Just last weekend the Minnesota DFL central committee approved a platform position calling for a moratorium on copper nickel mining in the state until technology is proven. This caused a backlash from Iron Range DFLers and labor delegates, many of whom walked out of the 10-hour meeting after the vote.

Also last week, six Iron Range mayors endorsed President Donald Trump for re-election. The group had endorsed Trump in 2016 so this was no surprise, but the group’s letter and appearance at a rally with Vice President Mike Pence spurred new headlines and political churn. One of the mayors, Eveleth’s Bob Vlaisavljevich, spoke at the Republican National Convention.

But then yesterday the United Steelworkers of America struck back, reiterating its endorsement of Joe Biden for President and refuting the primary claims of the pro-Trump letter. Namely, the argument that the Iron Range has come “roaring back to life” after Trump’s election. Indeed, that’s a hard claim to prove given the general economic stagnation of the region. Only five mines are open right now; we still don’t know about Keewatin Taconite which was shuttered during the region-wide COVID-19 shutdown this year.

These stories only highlighted a divided labor movement, one in which the building trades are comfortable with Trump because of his anti-environmentalism and industrial unions like the Steelworkers want a reliable collective bargaining ally like Biden.

These headlines are part of a long political story still unfolding here in Minnesota and across the nation. And while their immediate impact will be assessed in regard to the Nov. 3 general election, these are only notches up a much taller tree. That is the story I’m sharing with you today.

This morning the Minnesota Reformer published my latest column,  “If it’s to make a comeback, labor needs to look outside the halls of power and influence.” I tell a story you’ve heard from me before, about the Mesabi Range strike of 1916, and connect it to the current state of labor unions in Minnesota. I’m also sharing some of the tone you’ll find in my upcoming work. It’s a Labor Day column, but not one designed to make anyone comfortable. In fact, this is a handful of grit in the silk sheets of the powerful. Hope you like it.



  1. Great piece at the Refomer. I was hoping that you would post it here as a separate piece to be directly commented upon. I referenced the piece in conversation with a friend whom I am working with on an art project. He is a curler so he ha# been up there for the Last Chance which relatively might ne more aptly and ironically named then ever. He wanted to know about the town through the eyes of someon3 who grew up there. I tied your piece together along with the letter from the Steelworkers my sister in
    law referred me to earlier today. As you point out nicely similar divisions of a sort still are present. The lunacy of the tRump mayors in terms of the math of employment was well encapsulated. The nostalgia piece you hammered out recently was also thrown into the discussion with my working art partner. On the way home I stopped at the George Floyd Memorial to put in time memorial on site. I then proceeded home only to run into old friends who live in totally sustainable home in lower Stuber country. They find it lonely. How easy to go that way big time in mining country by building those products and maybe connecting all the employment dots by leaving the social manipulation of mining interests behind once and for all. Thanks Aaron. I hope the next podcast covers the 16 strike events.

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