Rethinking labor as change accelerates

IMAGE: Jason Snyder, Flickr CC-BY

Like many from the Iron Range, I take pride in my family’s long history of hard work. My ancestors include mechanics, railroad engineers, truck drivers, underground miners and Old World wrench-turners.

But isn’t this a cliche? No one says they come from seven generations of lazy grifters. Few family crests read, “It Is What It Is,” or “Good Enough.” We all know someone who naps on the night shift, but nobody’s bragging about it.

We’re human. The quality of our work varies, usually correlating with the quality of our purpose.

Last week I wrote about the potential sale of U.S. Steel. This story holds tremendous significance for our region. After all, our history was shaped by U.S. Steel. This company recruited immigrants to work here a century ago, creating the culture that made the Iron Range special. Decades later, U.S Steel joined other companies in automating the industry, laying off thousands of miners when I was a small boy.

But on Aug. 10, just a few days before all the financial drama broke loose, U.S. Steel issued a press release about its plans to use artificial intelligence to service mining equipment. The project is happening at Minntac in Mountain Iron, the largest iron ore mine in North America.

In a symbolic pairing, the company founded as the first billion-dollar corporation in 1901 now works with Google, one of the largest companies on Earth today. Dubbed MineMind, this project will use adaptive A.I. software to help technicians diagnosis problems to repair large mining equipment like haul trucks and shovels.

Company officials claim it will help reduce the time it takes to repair equipment by 20 percent, a boon to the all-important demand for productivity.

It’s easy to imagine how the software could help. Americans used to dread doing their own taxes, but now software walks them through the whole process. We’re starting to notice the spelling, grammar and punctuation suggestions that our e-mail service recommends. Indeed, the machines make us just a little more refined that we would otherwise be.

Before A.I. exploded, American workers worried about being replaced by robots. Technology wiped out entire classifications of jobs, including clerks, stenographers, typists and calculators — not to forget the dozen laborers it once took to fill an iron ore truck.

Today, robots are just as prevalent. A Torey Van Oot and Ryan Heath article in the Aug. 14 Axios Twin Cities newsletter explores “How Minnesota became a robot hub for manufacturing.” According to them, our state is in the top five for using robots to make things. The two big reasons? Advanced tech firms make robotics here. Meantime, we still face a worker shortage caused by aging, outmigration and restrictive immigration policies. It’s just easier and more profitable to use robots.

Nevertheless, robots alone don’t work, both literally and figuratively. Van Oot and Heath describe that companies that use the most robotics in manufacturing also hire the most human workers, too. But wages are stagnant or sometimes lower than before.

We might better define what the word “work” actually means. I know a lot of mechanics. Yes, they turn wrenches and tighten belts, but their ability to diagnose and solve problems distinguishes their abilities. A.I. might help them speed up the process, but who teaches them what the A.I. knows? The best mechanic becomes the one who adds to the A.I., not the other way around.

In physics, the word “work” refers to a force causing the displacement of an object. Philosophically, this means you have to do something to cause change. This “force” is an action, a task accepted and marked complete.

Many of us feel that “work” is being done to us, not by us. Here comes change, and more after that. But if we are a people that truly values hard work, we must be the ones exerting ourselves toward some greater purpose.

We may rightly condemn those who exploit the economy for their own benefit, but must also take action toward that which cannot be taken away — our values, expressed lovingly to each other.

Labor is not just what we do. It’s what we add to our families, our communities and society at large. Our quality of life over the next century depends upon whether labor affirms our humanity or turns us into unthinking, unfeeling machines. Adapting to this change will take hard work.

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, Sept. 2, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.


  1. Fred Schumacher says

    Look at Australia, which is rapidly putting autonomous mining equipment into production. The glory days of the Range are gone not because of environmental regulations but because of rapidly increasing productivity. Mining companies can put out the same production with one-tenth the work force.

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