What the rest of Minnesota can learn from the Iron Range’s desperate, decades-long search for jobs

An old production truck on display at the Hull Rust Mine View. Automation continues to reduce the number of jobs on the Iron Range. The pandemic has exposed the rest of the state to the unemployment crisis familiar to the Iron Range for more than a century. Photo by Christina Hiatt Brown.

I live along northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range, a place where the slogan, “jobs, jobs, jobs,” comprises a potent, if reductive political ethos. All problems would be solved if we had more jobs. Ergo: jobs, jobs, jobs. 

Ironically, a writer could probably lay off two of the “jobs,” leaving just one “jobs” to do the work alone. That also neatly explains what automation has done to northern Minnesota’s iron mining economy and why such decline still perplexes remaining stalwarts of the “jobs, jobs, jobs” mantra.

Rudy Perpich, Minnesota’s only governor from the Iron Range, coined the phrase “jobs, jobs, jobs” in response to the economic duress caused by the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s. It was a rallying call for all manner of economic development efforts during his administration, some of which worked and most of which didn’t. 

Nevertheless, the phrase carried on within the Range DFL, even long after Perpich himself concluded that “[the Iron Range] would never be like it was — never, never, never.”

Once I wrote a piece questioning the usefulness of this phrase amid the changing nature of work in the 21st Century. A few days later an editorialist for the erstwhile Mesabi Daily News opined that the phrase should really say “jobs, jobs, jobs, and then more jobs.” Today, as local political winds shift rightward in northeast Minnesota, you find Republicans trying to make use of Perpich’s old Farmer-Labor lexicon. Like a pair of dueling wizards, both sides utter the incantation. 

In such a place majorities are built around employment politics. And for a region historically tied to a single, volatile industry — iron mining — that has also come to include unemployment politics. 

This has been true for a century. In the earliest days of the 20th Century mines laid everyone off for the winter. Lumber camps would hire the workers until spring thaw made it too hard to transport timber. In a perfect year, anyone who wanted a job had one all year long. 

Alas, there were no perfect years. Jobless people tempered political steel from the very start. 

I’m writing a book about Victor Power, an early mayor of Hibbing. In 1913 Power sought to raise taxes on the mines for civic improvements. The mines threatened to shut down, saying that “grass would grow on the streets of Hibbing” before they paid up. 

Power called their bluff. “Then we’ll put the men to work cutting the grass,” he said. Indeed the mines would lay off hundreds of workers, and Power hired them all as village workers. They dug sewers, built parks and installed street lighting. Power ran up debt to pay them. Then, when the mines ran out of options, they paid their taxes and re-opened. Power satisfied the village’s debt. The mines had paid for the labor after all, along with all the new amenities.

Few Iron Range political leaders have attempted so brazen a maneuver since, but the spirit of this action endured. So long as workers wouldn’t starve when the mines shut down, mines and communities could forge a symbiotic relationship. 

Even as mining technology allowed year-round mining, market volatility still brought occasional and sometimes long lasting layoffs. State and federal unemployment programs took the place of Victor Power’s political machine, which proved far less damaging to the mines’ bottom line.

Soon enough mining trucks, trains, and shovels all got bigger, and bigger. Now one miner can move the whole day’s labor of one of those old mines with the push of a button. This has meant fewer workers. The declining population and tax base of the region shows the results. 

No doubt “jobs, jobs, jobs” would change the story. But saying the words while doubling down on the same industries hasn’t worked since the conversion to taconite in the 1950s and ‘60s. New nonferrous mining proposals consume vast amounts of political capital and public attention, but would reproduce only a small percentage of the lost jobs. 

Though this example is local; we see threads of it throughout the state and U.S. economy.

Like the rest of the world, the Iron Range was walloped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 2,000 miners were laid off at one point. But beyond the mines, many thousands more in service industries, health care and nonprofits joined them in the largely virtual unemployment lines. Indeed, the whole state and nation faced the same kind of seemingly (but not assuredly) temporary unemployment that we know so well on the Iron Range.

Iron Range mines return to service this month as steelmakers face backlogs of orders. Thus, efforts to again extend unemployment benefits for miners proved moot. But that is not true for countless other Minnesotans facing the reduction or cessation of unemployment benefits. Further, these workers cannot “make up for” the losses they experienced during the second quarter of 2020, nor do their incomes approach those of miners or other private sector union employees.

The extension of mining unemployment benefits is an ever-present Iron Range campaign issue and legislative priority. Now it could prove to be the biggest national campaign issue in the entire 2020 race. 

Welcome to Thunderdome! I’m afraid to report the real winners are in the executive boxes.

Without meaningful strategy, the phrase “jobs, jobs, jobs” means nothing. The economy isn’t made of jobs. It’s made of people. Their numbers, wealth and behaviors create economic activity, including production, profit and, yes, jobs. 

This cold reality has long daunted the Iron Range. Now it stalks the rest of the United States as automation and job contraction leave whole populations voting for a nationalistic version of “jobs, jobs, jobs” and receiving empty promises in return.

Meantime, we argue over extending meager unemployment benefits for laid off workers. Because that’s a much easier challenge than the real one.