Fits and starts for Iron Range labor talks over holiday weekend

United Taconite
This is a view of the United Taconite taconite mine at Eveleth. United Taconite faces a deadline of Saturday night to reach and agreement with the United Steelworkers union.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

One of the three Iron Range mining companies facing an expiring labor contract Friday night agreed to continue negotiating indefinitely with the United Steelworkers union, but the two other companies faced a deadline on Saturday night.

The negotiations affect nearly 3,000 mine workers at five facilities on the Iron Range that mine low-grade iron ore and process it into taconite pellets used to make steel.

Cliffs Natural Resources and United Steelworkers have agreed to operate indefinitely under their current contract, which expired at midnight Friday, until a new agreement can be hashed out.

Cliffs and the union agreed to take a temporary recess from negotiations on Friday evening.

On Sunday, union spokesman Tony Montana said that talks were continuing with U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal with no lockout by the companies. He said union employees continue to work.

Cliffs operates three facilities on the Iron Range. Two that are unionized, Hibbing Taconite, and United Taconite in Eveleth, collectively employ 1,090 union members.

Under the terms of the temporary agreement, each side would have to give the other 48 hours notice of a strike or a lockout.

Mining shovel
A shovel is moving rock from a future mining site at Hibbing Taconite. The mining company faces a deadline of Saturday night to reach and agreement with the United Steelworkers union.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"Cliffs Natural Resources' goal through this whole process has been to come to a fair and equitable agreement with the Steelworkers Union," said company spokeswoman Sandy Karnowski. "We're glad to see that both sides remain committed to that goal for as long as it takes."

Calls and emails to the companies on Sunday morning were not returned.

United Steelworkers International spokesman Wayne Ranick said it is generally a good sign when the parties reach agreement on an extension.

"I think anytime in negotiations when the parties continue to talk, that's always a good thing," Ranick said. "The idea is for everybody to keep working, and for both parties to come to a deal that works for both sides."

Meanwhile, the labor contracts for workers employed by U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal were set to expire at midnight Saturday, despite widespread reports earlier that all three contracts expired Friday night.

In a letter Friday updating members on negotiations with ArcelorMittal, the union signaled that it prefers not to strike. "Our best course of action," the update said, "is for all of us to continue working while we continue to press forward in an effort to reach an acceptable contract."

The letter continued, "Whether the company will agree to our offer to continue to work while we continue to bargain in good faith or instead choose to lock us out remains unknown at this time."

Union leaders say the talks with ArcelorMittal have been the most contentious. The company is the largest steel producer in the world, yet its operations in Minnesota are the smallest of the three companies. Its Minorca Mine in Virginia employs 310 union members.

ArcelorMittal has not commented on the specifics of the negotiations. In a statement, spokeswoman Mary Beth Holdford said the company "has recently begun the process of taking asset preservation steps at its facilities should a work stoppage occur."

In correspondence to its members, the United Steelworkers union has said the company's demand for a two-tier pay scale is a big sticking point, because new hires would receive lower wages. The union is also concerned with "the possibility of large premiums for health care."

Union negotiators have been more tight-lipped about ongoing contract talks with U.S. Steel, although they have signaled that those talks have gone more smoothly than the discussions with ArcelorMittal.

U.S. Steel is the country's second-largest steel producer. It operates Keewatin Taconite and MinnTac in Mountain Iron, which is the largest mine and taconite plant on the Iron Range. Together they employ about 1,300 union members.

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