Labor navigates northern Minnesota political crosswinds

PHOTO: DonkeyHotey, Flickr CC-BY, based on public domain poster from the U.S. Office for Emergency Management and the War Production Board.

My latest column for the Minnesota Reformer is out today. Let’s call it a Labor Day think piece.

Northern Minnesota has been a wellspring of the American labor movement for more than a century. However, in more recent years, organized labor has shifted into the role of mature old power, increasingly wedded to politics and priorities of the companies on the other side of the negotiating table. 

Two labor stories caught my eye this summer. The United Steelworkers of America are trying to organize workers at the Iron Range’s only non-union iron mine, Northshore Mining. And in Cloquet, a legal dispute prompted the city council to back off of requiring project labor agreements, a staple demand of the trade union movement.

That the topic of today’s column, “Iron Range labor’s maturity, and decline.” What does the rightward shift in Northern Minnesota politics mean for unions? And who will represent the majority of workers not at the table?

Check out the column in the Minnesota Reformer.

I also spoke about these issues in my most recent Voices of the Region segment on WDSE’s Almanac North program. You can view that here.




  1. Good column. One suspects the Steelworkers aren’t in a strong position, given the trumpish inclinations of so much of the membership, the cleverness of Stauber, and so on.

  2. Part of unions’ problems in Northeastern Minnesota has been the waning of their political power. Not long ago, a union endorsement was critical for office seekers and in many cases tantamount to election. Two things have been happening to end that power.

    First, the rise of the far right, the MAGA movement, and Trumpism has attracted many union members and traditional union supporters to the GOP. Social grievances, special interests, and feelings of alienation have overcome economic issues as the driving force for voting behavior, and the power of the unions to control politicians and officeholders and their decisions is disappearing with that change.

    The second issue is the antipathy of unions toward environmentalism. This is a national issue, but is especially powerful in Northeastern Minnesota. The most obvious issue here is the fight over non-ferrous mining, but the issue of localism versus state- and nationwide rights in how recreational use of our lands is managed is also a driver. Because of this, many people, especially union people, in Northeastern Minnesota find themselves in confrontational relationships with local progressives and the state and national Democratic Party. As the progressives gain more and more power in the decision making of the DFL and national Party, opposition to them becomes more and more virulent and willingness to support DFL candidates and office holders on the part of unions disappears.

    The problem for unions in all this is that they are not just seeing their members and supporters shift to a different party, but shift to a party that is specifically opposed to unions on most issues, including their very right to exist.

    Duluth represents a good window into the future of all this, and its recent primary election another example of political trends there. The unions, using stances on non-ferrous mining as a litmus test, have abandoned most progressive candidates, refusing to endorse them and in many cases endorsing
    Chamber of Commerce candidates and even outright right-wingers against them. In the past, this would have been the kiss of death for the progressives, but these days in Duluth it’s just another day at the office for well-organized and experienced progressive movement campaign organizers. Right now, it appears highly likely that one more progressive will be added to the city council and very possible that one and perhaps two staunch union candidates will lose., one. replaced by a far-right GOPer.

    I was talking recently with a couple of people with long-term involvement in DFL politics in Duluth, both elderly like myself. They were lamenting the fact that the “Duluth DFL” seemed disorganized and moribund. I disagreed. The Duluth DFL is very active and vital. It is just strongly committed to progressive and environmental issues, leaving these people and their old allies, based as they were in a strong history of union power and involvement, on the sidelines. As the Duluth progressives have climbed the learning curve on electoral politics they have left a large number of old warhorses behind.

    As a result of all this, I would foresee a future in Northeastern Minnesota of waning of power and membership of the core private unions. The commitment of the two big corporate players in non-ferrous mining to non-union operations and to aggressive mechanization will make that worse, if they ever open their mines. The unions have become lost in the new landscape of politics in the US, and for them the direction they need to head is unclear, given their conflicts with people who agree with them on most issues but not special issues they consider critical and the growing attraction of their rank and file to politicians who are outright opponents of unions and union issues in most cases. As the Range shifts right and toward the GOP, that will be a particular problem there.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.