Laid off for 18 months, Iron Range mineworkers prepare for uncertain future

David Meyer
David Meyer is one of several laid off mineworkers from Keewatin Taconite enrolled in the Industrial Systems Technology program at Hibbing Community College.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Long-time mineworkers on Minnesota's Iron Range often say they're used to the ups and downs, the booms and the busts of the notoriously cyclical mining industry.

"I've been laid off seven times from KeeTac in 17 years," said Tony Drazenovich, 47, of Grand Rapids. "That's a lot of layoffs."

But most of those layoffs were short, he said. And that's what he anticipated for this one, too, when he was laid off in May of last year.

"Everybody at that time was thinking it was just going to be a little blip," Drazenovich said.

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But the layoff has dragged on, month after month, for about 200 workers at KeeTac. Another 400 workers on the Range are also still out of work because of closures at smaller iron ore facilities, part of a wave of shut-downs that hit the Iron Range over the past two years during a major downturn in the global steel industry.

Tony Drazenovich
Tony Drazenovich, 51, is taking classes at Hibbing Community College, 18 months after he was laid off from Keewatin Taconite. "I'm nervous, I'm not going to deny that," he said.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"I've heard stories of members just dropping off their house keys at the bank, and basically jumping in their cars and heading out," said Cliff Tobey, president of Steelworkers local union 2660 in Keewatin. "Some of them I think may come back if things turn around, but I think some of them have made the decision that they're out of here."

Dozens of laid off mineworkers, including Drazenovich, have made a different decision. They've gone back to school, through a federal program known as TAA, or trade adjustment assistance, which pays to retrain workers who lost their jobs because of global trade.

Many are enrolled at Hibbing Community College in the Industrial Systems Technology program. It teaches welding, electrical and other skills to prepare students for work in a wide variety of manufacturing plants.

"When we graduate we'll have another set of skills," said David Meyer, who was also laid off from Keewatin Taconite. "Dedicated employees that want to get a paycheck for their work. "

For many of these workers, it's been 20 years or longer since they've been in school. Meyer helps tutor many of them. Some, he said, need basic help operating computers.

"It's been a struggle, I won't lie," said Kevin Maxie, 51, who lost his job at Mining Resources near Hibbing. "I do a lot of homework, I spend a lot of time looking at books, keep up with it as best you can."

Maxie is taking physics for the first time. He sometimes studies with his high school aged daughter.

"I've had to actually ask her help for algebra, because she's right about at the same point I'm at," he said. She'll say "really, dad? That's easy. I'm like, not for me it's not."

Maxie has stuck it out, and plans to graduate in May. Like most of the other students, he hopes to return to a good paying mining jobs.

But Meyer said most are thinking of a Plan B. "They want this training so that if the mine doesn't open up, they can go relocate. Because it really worries them about how non-dependable the feeling is in the industry."

Welcome to Keewatin
Keewatin Taconite closed a year and a half ago, part of a wave of mine closures that hit Minnesota's Iron Range. Many workers are back in school, learning new skills in case the mines don't reopen.
Bob Kelleher | MPR News 2009 file

U.S. Steel has given no indication of when, or even if it plans to reopen Keewatin Taconite. The company initiallly idled the plant because of low steel prices and a high level of steel imports, including steel that was later proven to be illegally dumped in the U.S.

In a statement the company said those factors continue to have an impact.

"If I was a Keetac worker, I'd be making plans for a long shutdown," said College of St. Scholastica economist Tony Barrett. "The pattern of these cycles is the steel industry generally does not come back to where it was at the beginning of the downturn."

Despite several trade rulings that slapped new tariffs on imported steel, Barrett said, demand just hasn't rebounded enough for U.S. Steel to reopen KeeTac.

U.S. Steel has also slashed its steel production to cut costs, said industry analyst Andrew Lane with Morningstar in Chicago. The company has shut down a huge steel mill in Granite City, Ill., outside St. Louis. That means the company needs fewer iron ore pellets from Minnesota.

"For management to reopen some of its steelmaking capacity and mining capacity," said Lane, "they'd have to buy into the notion that higher steel demand is here to stay, for an extended period of time."

Some believe a Trump administration will help, if it follows through on campaign promises to impose additional tariffs on imported steel and boost infrastructure spending.

U.S. Steel's stock price has jumped 53 percent since the election.