Iron Range stands up to threat of scabs

CHISHOLM, Minn. – A hastily called rally at the Iron Man monument here July 16 drew more than 800 people in the first show of solidarity against Cleveland-Cliffs’ decision to hire replacement workers at four mines if contract talks break down with the United Steelworkers of America. Cleveland-Cliffs, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, is the largest producer of iron ore pellets in North America.

Over a dozen speakers pounded the company for an hour and a half with a message to the company of “Don’t do that here” and to the scabs being trained to take their jobs, “Get the hell out!”

Cleveland-Cliffs has run newspaper ads and sent letters to workers telling them they will hire scabs.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton called the move a savage and lethal assault on the collective bargaining process where workers can withhold their labor for a fair contract. He promised to do all he can with the White House, the Department of Labor, in the Senate and at the Democratic Party Convention “to stop this deplorable action which should be illegal in this country.”

Dayton also promised to make Cleveland-Cliffs “a pariah in their industry” if they follow up on their threats, and said that could include legal action and scrutinizing any tax advantages or trade requests the company makes.

Many local politicians and leaders of other unions took the podium to pledge their support to the USWA if a battle ensues.

Cleveland-Cliffs and the Steelworkers have been in negotiations since early June. The contracts cover four mines – the Empire and Tilden mines in Negaunee, Mich., the Hibbing Joint Venture in Chisholm, Minn., and United Taconite in Eveleth, Minn. – which collectively employ almost 2,000 Steelworkers.

USWA District 11 Director David Foster said the company’s threat is the first time in 65 years that strikebreakers have been threatened against his union on the Iron Range.

He said Cleveland-Cliffs is doing well with “order books that are full” and was saved from the bankruptcy facing 48 other steel firms because the USWA compelled ISG to buy all their pellets from North America and to keep their blast furnaces operating. He said Cleveland-Cliffs is sitting on $500 million in cash because the Steelworkers got it for them.

Foster said this is the first time since the Civil War that America is experiencing a shortage of iron ore and stock prices are up accordingly for mining firms. “The money from the turnaround should not go to performance stock plans for (CEO) John Brinzo, it belongs in pension and retiree health care plans,” Foster told the cheering crowd.

Foster said it is a basic compact in the Steelworkers that you stand up for your parents and grandparents.

“If we don’t live up to that obligation how can we expect our kids and grandchildren to live up to it for us?” he asked.

Foster implored the crowd not to let Cleveland-Cliffs get away with their threats in one of the most unionized places in America and the county with the most union density in Minnesota.

“Our union belongs to this community, you created us out of the aspirations of your community, we’re your institution,” Foster said.

He called on businesses to post signs in support of their Steelworkers, urged solidarity in the ranks and from other unions, and didn’t rule out sit down strikes in the mines.

The author can be reached at labrwrld@cpinternet.com. Reprinted with permission from Labor World, the official publication of the Duluth Central Labor Body, AFL-CIO.