VIRGINIA — Rob Pulju was among thousands walking for millions on the Iron Range Thursday — millions of dollars, that is.
From the front of Virginia’s Miners Memorial Building — where the large Minntac mine in Mountain Iron could be seen in the distance — miners, steelworkers and their supporters rallied for fair contracts ahead of the looming Sept. 1 deadline for the United Steelworkers Union and steel companies to solidify a new contract.
Those contract talks have pitted the unions against multimillion dollar steel corporations, with millions in wages and benefits on the line.
Pulju marched within the crowd that engulfed both lanes of the city’s streets as it headed toward Olcott Park. He sported a backwards baseball hat and a fair contract sign. And in the spirit of the rally, he wasn’t ready to give in, despite the uncertainty tied to the labor negotiations in Pittsburgh, and the ever-prevailing chance a deal isn’t reached in time.
“If we have to strike, we have to strike,” said the Arcelor Mittal Minorca Mine worker. “One thing’s for sure, we’re not moving backwards.”
The Minorca Mine, near Biwabik and Gilbert, crushes and concentrates mined ore into pellets. It hasn’t announced a plan to idle or layoff employees as United Taconite in Eveleth did in July and Keetac in Keewatin, but that could all change Sept. 1.
Union officials told members Tuesday that if no deal is reached, it could vote to strike, the companies could lock workers out, the union could work without a contract or work under the old contract, so long as discussions continue.
As of Thursday’s rally, no end is in sight for current talks.
“It’s tough right now,” Pulju said, when asked about his confidence in meeting the deadline. “We just have to keep negotiating.”
At the heart of the labor strife is a downturn in the industry’s economy due to lower commodity prices and large stockpiles. And then there’s the illegally subsidized imported steel in the U.S. pipeline.
Mining operations are also becoming more efficient, a trend as new technologies allow oil and gas and other mining companies, including steel, to extract product quicker and more cost effectively, making this new contract a potential game-changer from previous agreements.
But the unions are looking to the downturn to point out where companies have pushed the workers into this arduous negotiation process, in which companies are seeking lower wages and reduced benefits such as healthcare and retirement.
ArcelorMittal released a statement this week warning the downturn may be prolonged beyond what is expected, and it would not base a 2015 contract off a potential iron ore boom.
John Arbogast, Steelworkers Local 1938 vice president, said ArcelorMittal, U.S. Steel and Cliffs Natural Resources — whose union contract expires Sept. 9 — are taking advantage of the cyclical nature of the iron ore mining to cut benefits and costs.
“If you think the Iron Range will ever turn its back on our workers, on our retirees, bring it on,” Arbogast told a crowd at Olcott Park, noting union presidents have been in Pittsburgh negotiating since July 5.
Thursday’s rally was as much about semantics as it was a large-scale pep talk to the 4,500 steelworkers employed at the five Iron Range mines. With thousands laid off from idled plants, the core message was unification of the workers, their families, the unions and lawmakers.
Minnesota DFL Lt. Gov. Tina Smith said the negotiation period was tough as workers wait for resolution, but she, along with Democrats U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and 8th District U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, attended to show their solidarity with the steelworkers. Gov. Mark Dayton was unable to make the rally due to illness.
“It’s so frustrating waiting for something to happen,” Klobuchar said. “There’s way too many people idled. It’s hard not to be faced with the reality of the situation.”
They also wanted the event to send a message to Washington to place more inspectors at U.S. ports to clamp down on illegally dumped foreign steel, which played the largest role in damaging iron ore prices. The delegation argued that stricter regulation on illegal foreign steel will increase demand of U.S. steel, and in turn aid the Iron Range and other mining communities.
“This isn’t a little packet of drugs, they should be able to see this on these ships,” Klobuchar said of port inspections. “We don’t want the foreign cheater, we want the American workers. And that’s why we need a fair contract now.”
Nolan told the crowd at Miners Memorial that the rebound of the U.S. steel industry has a deeper impact than just the Iron Range. By boosting the industry, they can also stop a destruction of America’s middle class and allow more workers to make a livable salary and provide for their families.
An impassioned Nolan also took aim at politicians who have attacked and attempted to thwart unions.
“The economic success of this country follows the success of the union movement,” he said.