WASHINGTON, D.C.—Dan Hill, of Hibbing, knows firsthand the uncertainty facing mineworkers on the Iron Range these days. Unlike most of his fellow workers, however, he had a chance this week to speak directly to folks who could do something to put thousands of laid-off employees back to work.
Hill, a Steelworkers Local 6860 member and one of more than four hundred laid-off United Taconite workers, was in the nation’s capital this week for the President’s State of the Union as the guest of Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. He had caught the eye of political leaders with his impassioned comments during a meeting in Virginia last month with President Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough, who had traveled to the area to hear from mineworkers, company executives and others affected by the severe downturn in the steel and iron ore industry.
Klobuchar said she invited Hill to attend the president’s annual address as a way to keep the pressure on for action. From what he’s seen so far, Hill said he thinks the Obama administration has gotten the message. “This morning I was in the Oval Office with the chief of staff,” said Hill, on Tuesday, “and everyone knew my name and why I was there.”
Tuesday evening, Hill was slated to attend the annual senators’ dinner just prior to the State of the Union, where he and Sen. Klobuchar planned to make the rounds of influential lawmakers, in hopes of garnering support for tariffs to help stem the flood of foreign steel that has driven down prices and shuttered steel mills and iron mines across the country.
Somewhat paradoxically, the U.S. steel industry is suffering in part due to the relative strength of the U.S. economy, and the economic difficulties now being experienced in China. “We see that China is in trouble,” said Klobuchar. “That’s part of the reason why they’re breaking the law.” The strong U.S. dollar is also making foreign imports cheaper and making it tougher for U.S. manufacturers to export their own products.
Hill said northeastern Minnesota miners can compete with anyone on a level playing field, but he noted that many of the huge foreign mines they’re now competing against are mining the same kind of high-grade red ore once commonly mined on the Iron Range. He said the red ore requires minimal processing, which reduces production costs even though it means more pollution once it reaches the steel mill.
“It’s not apples-to-apples,” he said. The Iron Range shifted to lower-grade taconite in the 1950s and 60s, which was more plentiful than the traditional red ore. But the shift did, inevitably, raise production costs, and that has plagued the Iron Range whenever ore prices have dipped.
Hill said it’s been a privilege to represent northeastern Minnesota mineworkers this week in Washington, and he said many were eager to join him on the trip. “Some of them suggested we fire up the green bus and bring everybody down,” he said, in a reference to the bus made famous by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. “Of course, we’d probably need to change the tires first.”
After his close-up with the nation’s top leaders, is Hill thinking about a career in politics?
“Nope,” he said.
“He just wants to get back to work,” said Klobuchar.