Commentary

Iron Range labor’s maturity, and decline — Column

August 31, 2021 6:00 am

Workers dump ore into dock pocket at the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway Company in Duluth around 1935. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society.

Twenty years ago I attended one of countless public forums regarding the economic future of northern Minnesota. A local business owner lamented that there would be no new business on the Iron Range so long as unions were so strong. Unions, she said, got in the way of everything. 

Some things have changed since then. Politically, the region runs 50/50 with a palpable shift toward the Republican Party. With this, union attitudes on the Range have declined. 

Local unions now operate more closely with the companies, rarely speaking against them. Insistence on union labor in construction is weaker. Officials even sold the naming rights to a new arena in Virginia, Minnesota, to a Toyota dealership, the only seller of new foreign cars on the Range. These things would have seemed shocking even 20 years ago, certainly 40 years ago. 

But other things haven’t changed. The region remains fixated on a single industry — mining — while more people actually work in health care. Service sector jobs are plentiful, but fewer people want them because they pay too little, offer inconsistent hours and often provide no benefits. The region’s economy is right where we left it in 2001 after LTV Steel closed its Hoyt Lakes plant.

Right now iron ore enjoys strong demand, pleasing miners and their families. And yet rising prices, hard-to-find child care and expensive housing complicate life on the other side of the economy, even with work available. Union labor on the Range earns more and is better able to handle these expenses. 

Let’s review what we’re talking about when we talk about unions because they come in more shapes and sizes than people realize.  

First, there are big industrial unions, representing workers in privately owned mills and factories. Second, we find trade unions that represent workers who construct and maintain buildings, bridges and highways. Third there are service workers’ unions who represent people in food service, hospitality and building maintenance.

As a group, these first three are considered private unions. U.S. private union membership declined significantly since 1950, but stabilized at 7.1 million members in 2020, according to a recent article in the National Law Review.

Fourth, we see public sector unions. These represent workers from cities, counties, states and the federal government. They include teachers, firefighters, social workers and police officers. There are about 7.2 million public sector union members in the United States. The rate of union membership in the public sector is about five times higher than in the private sector. 

Successful organization of government workers won’t buoy the whole economy, however. So where does the labor movement go from here? This year we see evidence of its obstacles in northern Minnesota. 

For instance, the building trades lost a fight in Cloquet this summer over project labor agreements.

A project labor agreement is an understanding between a company and a labor union about the pay and working conditions of building projects. Such agreements aim to reduce tensions between workers and the company, to avoid labor stoppages, and to complete projects more efficiently. They’re common in big projects; less so in smaller ones. The Cloquet City Council voted to require project labor agreements just a few years ago, but repealed that requirement this summer.

City officials said they faced a lawsuit over the project labor agreement policy. Lawsuits against PLAs are not unusual. Non-union companies often sue for access to projects and to reduce labor costs. What this episode showed is that the city didn’t want the fight. Even though trade unionists asked them not to repeal the policy, the city did anyway. 

A critical fight lies ahead for the region’s biggest industrial union, as well. A July 28 Mesabi Tribune story describes the upcoming union drive by the United Steelworkers of America at the Iron Range’s only non-union taconite plant. 

Several attempts to unionize Northshore Mining in Babbitt and Silver Bay failed in the past. The union will make another attempt this fall by seeking union card signatures of a majority of Northshore workers. Cleveland-Cliffs owns this mine and have pledged neutrality in the 90-day union “card check” campaign. The Steelworkers represent workers at Cliffs’ other mines at Hibbing, Eveleth and Virginia. They also represent U.S. Steel’s mines at Mountain Iron and Keewatin.

The Steelworkers could use a win. The last time there was a union vote on the Range was in 2012 at the now defunct Mesabi Metallics plant near Aurora. The Steelworkers lost that vote, in part because the company used incentives and overtime pay to keep workers from joining the union. But as the company began to fail, those workers lost out on union protections. 

At their peak, Iron Range Steelworkers locals aimed not only to improve pay and working conditions, but to bolster the local quality of life. But that’s not the thrust of the Steelworkers organizing pitch to Northshore workers this year. Rather, the union is selling bread-and-butter issues like pay, benefits, profit sharing and representation not currently available to the non-union employees. 

Solidarity for stock options. That’s what we’re going to see from unions with mature labor agreements in this environment. In another word: defense. 

As the most powerful American unions fight for their survival, the bigger question for American workers is what comes next? Who is looking out for the vast majority of workers who do not have the protections and benefits of a labor union?

Will today’s ruling corporations like Amazon or Walmart ever work with a collective bargaining unit? What happens as automation marches on, creating a “white collar” position where once there were 10 “blue collar” jobs?

The peak of unionism in America represented a moment when American workers realized they had value in the economy. Corporate profits are even bigger today as paper trillions course through the wires. Workers seem more valuable than ever. So, what will their modern labor movement look like? 

Workers could decide that themselves. They just have to decide they deserve a rightful share of the economic worth of the world’s biggest economy. After all, people who work deserve to have affordable housing, education, health care and a secure retirement. 

Same as before. Same as ever.

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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.

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