The mines will come back; many of the jobs won’t

An old production truck on display at the Hull Rust Mine View. Photo by Christina Hiatt Brown.

As three of the six remaining taconite mines in northern Minnesota announced temporary shutdowns in the past 10 days, I’ve been pulled back to the summer of 2000. 

LTV Steel opened a new millennium on the Mesabi Iron Range by announcing that it would close its Hoyt Lakes taconite mine. I was an intern at the Northeast Minnesota Office of Job Training.

The next morning miners packed the lobby of my workplace. Normally, my job was to monitor safety conditions at youth worksites. But on this day I would be deputized onto the resume desk. I was 20, pimpled, clad in khaki pants and the burgundy polo shirt that I wore in my senior pictures. Most of these workers were older than my father.

A few wielded resumes on yellowed paper that a wife or girlfriend typed for them before I was born. I remember one man in particular, a production truck driver. The objective of his old resume was “truck driver.” I asked him what he wanted to do next. “Truck driver,” he growled. He just needed someone to update the years of service. He was powerless. I was useless.

At the time, few of these miners would find work at other Iron Range mines. It was another seminal moment in the mining economy. A contraction. We now know that local mining employment would never exceed its level before that day.

This experience would change me, but not the mining business. 

As world events and volatile markets flap their butterfly wings, U.S. Steel’s Keewatin Taconite, Cleveland Cliffs’ Northshore Mine, and ArcelorMittal’s Hibbing Taconite will all remain idle during the traditional peak of mining production this year. Others may join them.

So here we are. Again.

A similar event occurred five years ago, and another six years before that. Like a sundial the shadow always comes around again.

The Iron Range’s up-and-down economy is old hat to anyone who follows Minnesota news. What’s often unsettling though is how fast these fortunes turn. An industry projecting virile strength just three months ago is now bedridden by ague. 

Make no mistake. These current closures are temporary. Minnesota’s iron ore industry isn’t going anywhere. About 85 percent of American iron ore comes from northern Minnesota. As long as the United States produces steel some of it will be composed of hard rock from Minnesota.

But six mines? Four thousand workers? These numbers will keep shrinking as the steel industry forges itself into new forms. More steel is recycled. Small batch electric arc furnaces overtake the old blast furnaces for which traditional taconite was developed. New ore supplies in Australia reset world markets in the past  decade. Now, a new mine in west Africa boasts more natural iron ore than the Mesabi Iron Range produced during both world wars. The company behind it is run by the government of China.

Every time a mine closes it reopens leaner and more automated. “Golden goose” contracts between companies and the United Steelworkers provide good wages, benefits and protections to miners; but cannot prevent the winnowing of the workforce. As the sap boils into syrup the line between union and management isn’t all that clear. At some point everyone involved will be an engineer, but there won’t be many of them, and certainly not enough to support a regional economy like in the past.

Mining is about demand. What would get you to dig a hole and haul away the rocks you find? $5 Or maybe $1.3 billion? Supply is assumed, but cost, regulation and markets are all highly variable. Like the rest of American industry — from factories to ride share apps — profits are augmented by reducing cost and putting the burden of risk on someone else’s ledger. So here we are. Again.

Twenty years ago I wanted to tell those laid off miners that they should learn computers. Indeed, if they had learned how to write the software code that powers new automation they would be millionaires. That’s not what they did, though. Some retired early. Some found new work. Some waited and found jobs at other mines as older workers retired. These are the choices conditioned by 100 years of Iron Range mining culture. 

Me? I became a journalist and teacher who blathers about economic diversification. I’ve long since learned to understand my limited purpose.

Never forget the humanity of our present condition. Look in the eyes of someone uncertain how to provide for a family. You will see quickly how little comfort words provide. Change is rarely instigated by those most affected by it. So long as productivity and stock value trumps work and workers it will get worse for more people.

In times like these leaders may employ empathy or exploitation. So it has been throughout the history of this thin strip of rich iron in the North Woods. So it is for the whole U.S. economy in the era of COVID-19. People or markets? Which will it be this time?