Iron range miners prepare to strike

Two thousand iron ore miners at four taconite mines in Minnesota and Upper Michigan stepped up preparations for a strike against the Cleveland-based company Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., even as negotiations continued pushing up against a July 31 contract expiration. CCI manages and has co-ownership in four taconite plants: Hibbing Taconite and United Taconite in northern Minnesota, and the Empire and Tilden mines in Michigan. Taconite is low-grade iron ore, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of steel.

Mike Carlson, president of United Steel Workers of America Local 4974 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, issued a call to his rank and file from Pittsburgh, where negotiations are taking place, for picket captains and strike and defense workers. He added that the local’s vice-president, Jim DeMarinis, would stay home from the negotiations to “concentrate on preparing for a strike.”

Workers and mining communities across the Iron Range were outraged last week when Cleveland-Cliffs management brought trailers onto company properties to dramatize their plan to use scabs in the event of a strike. The last time strikebreakers were used on the Iron Range was in 1907.

In a July 7 advertisement in The Mining Journal, CCI laid out its plan to bring in strikebreakers. The company took out another ad listing how much per hour it pays for each union employee. The USWA responded by running its own ad detailing the salaries of top CCI executives. According to the union, CCI, CEO John Brinzo took in $1.4 million in total compensation in 2002, an 88 percent increase over five years.

If the miners strike July 31, they will be joining nearly 2,000 Canadian USWA members from three plants in eastern Canada on the picket line. The Wall Street Journal reports that their strike already affects more than 25 percent of North America’s iron ore supply. With corporate profits on the upswing as a result of surging prices for steel and its raw material components, union workers are less inclined to agree to takeaways in their new contract, the Journal reported.

According to union sources, some progress had been made in talks on the issue of controlling the contracting-out of the union members’ work to private companies. The remaining outstanding issue is CCI’s demand to increase health care premiums for both active workers and retirees.

Meanwhile, the city of Hibbing’s Zoning and Planning Department declared that 10 trailers which had been set up on plant grounds for use by replacement workers were “unusable and non-livable until proper permits are issued.” The permit hearing was set for Aug. 9.

Reflecting the widespread community support for the union workers, eight Minnesota state legislators wrote an open letter to Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) asking for an investigation of the two out-of-state union busting companies currently training “paramilitary type personnel” on the Range “in order to replace the local steelworkers.” The lawmakers called on the governor to use his office to “stop this nonsense” and “help avert a potentially dangerous situation.”

The author can be reached at rwood @ pww.org.