Analysis: What does Tom Bakk’s ouster tell us about labor and the Iron Range?

February 3, 2020 6:00 am

State Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, became the new Senate minority leader, beating state Sen. Tom Bakk in a caucus vote.

ITASCA COUNTY — State Sen. Susan Kent (DFL-Woodbury) ousted Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook Saturday at a Senate Democratic-Farmer-Labor caucus meeting. Ironically, the rebellion took place in a carpenters’ union hall, the kind of place where Bakk built his Iron Range labor credentials.

Kent will lead Senate Democrats as the legislature reconvenes Feb. 11.

The news is fresh. Bakk hasn’t offered public comments yet. Kent gave a short statement to reporters about how important the next year would be. But this story has been brewing for some time, with credible arguments for and against Bakk’s ouster.

The mostly suburban and urban DFL caucus signaled this major change going into an election year that could put them back in the majority. But this seismic action will rankle some rural DFLers. This is especially true of the sensitive and battle-prone Iron Range delegation, of which Bakk is the de facto dean.

Sen. Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook

As leader Bakk mostly held the party line on big DFL issues. The biggest complaints center on his priorities and methods. The DFL holds more urban and suburban districts than it ever has before. The senators representing those districts didn’t always see their wishes reflected in Bakk’s agenda.

Bakk’s dogged devotion to pipelines, mines and projects in his district earns him props with many on the Iron Range. It’s particularly important to the building trades unions for which he’s worked his whole professional life. The trades unions remain a strong voice in what’s left of the Iron Range labor movement.

But in terms of votes, the Range has clearly shifted from its once solid DFL blue to the light purple hue of an old Vikings t-shirt. This meant that the existing Range DFL and labor leadership structure had to exert more and more political capital to win fewer and fewer persuadable votes. And in completely subjecting themselves to the mining lobby they began alienating other voters within the DFL coalition.

This scales were always going to tip at some point.

The decline of organized labor and its marriage with management

The end of Tom Bakk’s run as Senate DFL leader is tied to the decline of organized labor itself.

The Iron Range of the post-war era became solidly DFL because of the alliance of industrial and trade unionism. The trades were the AFL. The industrial unions were the CIO.

Both sought wages, benefits and protections for their members. But industrial unionism always aimed for broader goals. Quality of life issues like education and even the environment were always more prevalent in industrial unions like the Steelworkers than they were in building trades unions. That’s not a knock; it’s a function of the conditions under which each union negotiates.

Popular Range political leaders like Rudy Perpich and his brothers George and Tony, John Blatnik and Jim Oberstar all carried the industrial union tradition of broad societal goals. Trade unions happily joined the fight. This became a very happy, if rowdy, political family for many decades.

But scarce resources make monsters of men. As automation and corporate efficiencies killed jobs, a spirit of survivalism began to rule. And here the trades unions, exemplified by a tradesman like Bakk, began to take over.

Once mature trade union contracts are in place, with prevailing wage protections and the like, the only real question is whether or not stuff is getting built, necessitating labor. A good economy helps, but so do state and federal infrastructure projects. Even the faint notion that a new industry — like pipelines or copper nickel mining — could begin in a rural area becomes chum in the political water.

Remember, here in Northern Minnesota tradespeople spend parts of the year laid off. Building a major plant is two solid years of work and a lifetime of scheduled maintenance. It’s an economic foothold on the face of an imposing mountain.

That’s why, for all practical purposes, Iron Range big business and trade unions are pretty much on the same side now. That couldn’t be more evident than in Bakk’s political positioning.

Or, consider State Rep. David Lislegard (DFL-Aurora). He’s a management official for a major industrial construction company. He ran for office with the overwhelming support of the trade unions with a campaign largely funded by prominent local business leaders. Read the campaign reports for most Range lawmakers and local party units. You’ll see what I’m talking about. 

The old labor song goes, “Which side are you on, son? Which side are you on?” The answer for today’s Iron Range DFL is both, apparently. Union jobs are upper class jobs, at least compared to working at Walgreens. So the unions play defense. And this kind of unionism won’t do much for those outside that closed economic loop. 

Meantime, private industrial unionism declined here as it has elsewhere else. The Steelworkers watched their membership shrink with automation and consolidation of Iron Range mines through the 1980s and ‘90s. Now, with constant rumors of plant closures, they also see their members demand more focus on bread and butter issues — the kinds of things that trade unions focus on. No more high-minded political goals. Don’t you get it? If Hibbing Taconite or MinnTac close we’re all doomed. Do whatever they ask. New mining? Yes, please.

Private interests fund marketing and campaign donations to influence news coverage and political races, respectively. Mining and pipelines are the most important issues because mining and pipelines are the most important issues because …. and so on.

Star Tribune business columnist Lee Schafer seemed to discover the political nature of these projects in his Friday column. The fall of Bakk only serves to fuel that dynamic. Republicans are licking their chops to make every inch of this about “big city environmentalists” when, in fact, this story begins and ends with the existential crisis for labor, a crisis largely fueled by the GOP’s favorite deity: The Market.

Knife in the front or knife in the back

When the Range turned blue after WWII, miners generally lived in the towns and walked or took a short drive to work. Their economic well-being was tied up in the community, the school and local control of tax revenue. The 1964 Taconite Amendment led to a short boom of development that colored the rosy childhood of most Iron Range baby boomers.

But then began a long, slow decline in mining employment. Miners are now fewer but much better paid. Most of them drive trucks from rural homes to taconite plants outside of town, sometimes in the middle of nowhere. Their recreation is self-made: snow machines, ATVs and vacations with the spouse. Liberal notions of community, collectivism and the common good are seen as luxuries for which fewer miners wish to pay.

Meantime, the broad corpus of the Iron Range population aren’t miners. A solid one-fifth of them are of retirement age. Another enormous group works in health care or government. An even bigger group works in low paid service industries, most of which were never unionized at all. DFL policies might be of great benefit to these groups but cultural distrust of a more urbanized DFL makes that a tough sell.

The innate Iron Range distrust of Duluth and the Twin Cities has a long history. It’s existed ever since the first miners watched the first ore make a big profit for someone else. Through the 1920s and ‘30s the Steel Trust ruled the region with paternalism; a little meat for your pot if you fall in line. And because the Steel Trust was a Republican institution the local population happily cast it aside when WWII opened the door for industrial unionism and the nascent Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. But “give us ours” has aged into “leave us alone,” and now more Rangers perceive the DFL as the paternalistic organization.

It’s not some deep-seated ideological awakening. It’s cultural, not partisan.

Sen. Tom Bakk’s arm-twisting, deal-making ways are a function of the pressures he faces from his allies and powerful supporters more than anything he faced in the DFL Senate Caucus. It’s slipping away, you see. But this was always going to end in Shakespearian fashion. A knife in the front or a knife in the back? That was the only question left.

What’s next? Change brings opportunity for new voices and ideas. We hope for new growth. But perhaps only after the forest fire that will soon come.

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.