Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He is the author of the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and host of the Great Northern Radio Show on 91.7 KAXE. He is also a source in MPR News' Public Insight Network.
Last month, the United Steelworkers conceded defeat in the unionization vote at the Mesabi Nugget plant near Aurora, Minn.
According to Mesabi Nugget, the vote was 57-21. The vote took place over two days, included a complete unionization drive by the steelworkers and was overseen by federal labor officials.
In an Iron Range region known as a labor bastion, the first questions have to be: How did this happen? And what does it mean?
Mesabi Nugget is among the newest iron ore processing facilities on the Range, using a modern process to create iron nuggets that are purer than taconite pellets. It opened after the early 2000s mining slowdown and before the big recession of 2008-09.
Thus, the people working there were very happy to get those jobs. And why not? The pay has started at about $50,000 a year with a $75,000-a-year average, plus incentive programs based on production. That's really good pay on the Range, especially if you've strung together jobs at foundries, manufacturing companies or the like over the years. For a younger worker here, this is as good as it can get.
The union's dominant argument seemed to center on safety. Union representation would mean a consistent eye on safety so that the rush to meet quotas for incentives didn't threaten lives. But the workers simply opted for the good pay and a work environment they apparently like. That could change. But it didn't sway the vote.
It's hard to avoid the political ramifications. Private-industry labor unions were the backbone of the region's DFL political coalition from World War II until recently. With workforce reductions, the mines are still the dominant employers, but in much smaller numbers than the '70s. Modern mining jobs are better than ever, but less plentiful. As those jobs have become more technical, mines have become more precise in how they hire (you have to take a personality test, for instance). Those factors make unionism harder to take hold.
Younger workers on the Iron Range have no personal memory of the working conditions that made unions as important as they once were. I know a lot of the folks just hired at the mines these days. I went to school with them. They've struggled through sluggish construction trades and attempts at self-employment for a decade; now these mines are paying good money. What's a union?
This means that the DFL's strongest ally — labor — is weaker. All but one of the mines are still solidly union, but any union steward would tell you it's harder to get people excited and active in the union these days because the pay is good. Several Range mine unions willingly voted away the eight-hour day because younger workers prefer longer shifts with more days off.
So, while the DFL has a socioeconomic and cultural advantage on the Range today, it will have to dramatically retool its long-term strategy to hold its historic margins here.
The vote at Mesabi Nugget is one thing. But when looking ahead at future union votes on the Range — particularly at Essar Steel when it opens and any of the potential nonferrous mineral mines on the east Range — we have a real question. Can labor regroup and become relevant to newer workers, both young Rangers and those who come in from outside the area? That's a daunting challenge.
The labor movement was critical to the growth and success of the middle class across America, particularly on the Iron Range. As labor has waned, so too have the fortunes of your average Range worker (remember, most don't work at the mines). But the times are changing and it's important for labor and free marketers alike to deal with the future in real terms.