All we have

Editorial cartoon from the IWW Mesabi Range strike of 1916.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard some big wheel from the Iron Range tell a reporter that “mining is all we have in northeastern Minnesota.” It’s like when I hit my head on the corner of the freezer door while digging in the fridge: a sharp and familiar pain that occurs often enough to forget the frequency. 

I do know that a Steelworkers union official repeated these words in a March 28 MinnPost story by Ana Radalat about the future of mining. It’s not his fault. It’s a talking point passed around the halls of local power like a bad cold.

I’m for the Steelworkers. They’re a proper union, a product of the Committee for Industrial Organization. Some considered the CIO too radical, but they had the stuff. In 1942, the United Steelworkers of America busted through barriers weakened by decades of failed efforts to unionize the industrial workforce. When people talk about “good paying mining jobs” they’re talking about what the Steelworkers did.

Iron Range society was built on iron mining. It’s right there in the name. But almost immediately — as in, during the McKinley Administration — people figured out that mining towns hold certain unshakeable traits. 

The money is good when the mine is running, but hopelessly bad when it isn’t. 

When the ore leaves, it’s gone forever. When the mine is gone, it no longer returns calls or pays bills. 

The private conversations of mining officials are different than what they say publicly. 

From these lessons, the people of the Iron Range gained new axioms.

First, use the law to seek a fair share of the revenue coming out of mines for your community. Get as much as you can because it won’t be much and it won’t last long. Use the money to educate and inspire your children to build a lasting world outside the mines. 

Organize. Only a unionized workforce will enjoy equal standing with the owners.

Today, we mix the big business of iron mining with a more speculative question of whether the plentiful but low grade nonferrous minerals of the Duluth Complex represent the “only” way forward for our region. 

We are now asked to buy the notion that the fate of humanity hinges on whether we gift wrap our limited supply of copper, nickel and palladium for international companies like Glencore that routinely bribe foreign governments and bust unions. 

No, friends, this is not to say we can’t or shouldn’t mine. Minnesota iron mining built a nation and could be part of a carbon free steel industry in the future. We might one day see profitable and environmentally sound mining plans for other minerals. We might also recycle just as many minerals from existing materials, as one recent study suggests.

Regardless, we can still believe the lessons of the past. When company agents in public office whisper about reducing the iron mining production tax, or protecting nonferrous mines from any production taxes at all, let history be our guide. When companies refuse to sign agreements with the Steelworkers allowing them to organize the new mines, know what that means. We are their marks, not their friends.

Times are changing. Work is changing. Technology saves lives and destroys jobs all at once. We must not supplicate ourselves to powerful interests that seek to give us as little as possible in exchange for our birthright. 

If mining is all we have in northeastern Minnesota we are doomed. But we are not doomed. In fact, we stand at the gates of an era that could belong to all of us. But not if we prioritize the words of paid spokespeople and frightened power brokers over the hunger and the hopes of our people. What do the people get? The ones who don’t work at the mines?

They won’t see the tax revenue, which industry agents now seek to cap. They won’t gain environmental benefits, which are obscured by vague, open-ended mine plans that companies want “streamlined.” The companies only offer jobs for as long as the mines are open. So we do this for jobs. But, my fellow Rangers, the ore and the labor are already ours, not theirs. We are the sellers, not the buyers. 

Remember the lessons of our ancestors, earned with blood in lifetimes of back-breaking poverty. We work not for the enrichment of industry but for the economic freedom of our families and communities. Such freedom can outlast every mine. What we do with it is all we have.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, April 22, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Aaron; All true and what is often lost in the discussions about “new” mining (i.e., copper/nickel) is this: At it’s height, the iron ore mines of the Ranges employed somewhere around 14,000 miners. The few remaining taconite mines and plants, when they are up and running, employee 4,000. With automation and changes in technology, those 10,000 jobs are never coming back to the Range. Polymet promises 300 mining jobs for a maximum time span of 20 years. Then what? Will whatever toxic tailings ponds that are left be cleaned up by foreign owners? What about the supposed spinoff jobs? Once the mine closes, what happens to those jobs? Extractive industries will, al least, for the next 50 years, be part of the Range. But what then? The Range has to be more than mining or it will cease to exist. Nicely said. (My grandfather, Ivan Kobe, was a Slovenian miner from Aurora. Much of my extended Slovenian family made its living in the mines. That is no longer true.)

  2. Fred Schumacher says

    The old growth white pine logging of the late 19th and early 20th century was a one-time harvest. They came, they cut, they dammed rivers and filled the lakes with silt and litter, and then they left, and what remained were huge fires in the slash and unpaid property tax bills. The consequences of any activity in a water rich environment has long term consequences. Note in point, Canada’s tar sands.

  3. joe musich says

    Bingo… The warning was issue as was the route out ! Well done. As what you say is true for any industry and any town regatding the wokers needing to grasp their power this is a fitting writing for Mn Reformer as well. And here is your line that boils it all down…” When company agents in public office whisper about reducing the iron mining production tax, or protecting nonferrous mines from any production taxes at all, let history be our guide.” You have rung the bell and I hope people are listening. Because we need to be aware as we were alerted as the audience in a play I attended Sunday the opposition …”is well funded and scaffolded…” Thank you Aaron.

  4. Bill Hansen says

    The unspoken part of this equation is the corrosive effect of “dark money”–aka untraceable negative campaign funds. The bullying of sitting politicians by those who control the dark money is directly responsible for behavior you describe, as well as the silence of others. The source of funds is untraceable, but we are expected to believe that it does not come from kleptocrats and money launderers?

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