It’s Labor Day weekend on the Mesabi Iron Range. So let’s talk about labor.

You might have noticed a burst of media attention for a project labor agreement between the proposed Twin Metals mine in Ely and local construction trade unions. It was a front page story in this and most regional newspapers and a top story on local TV newscasts.

A project labor agreement is an understanding between a developer and trade unions about the way a new project will be built. It includes specifics on wages, workplace safety, pension payments and general conditions of employment.

The chief advantage of a project labor agreement is that it gives the developer a specific expectation of cost and timelines while assuring them won’t be any work stoppages. It also provides guarantees and protections to the workers who will ultimately do the building.

Project labor agreements are a good thing. And it’s good that Twin Metals signed one.

But that’s not the union agreement that’s most important in the long run. Construction lasts a couple years, but the plant is supposed to run for decades. No, the big unanswered labor question about Twin Metals in Ely and PolyMet in Hoyt Lakes is whether or not the permanent labor force will be unionized.

Thus, the contract that would really matter is a neutrality agreement with the United Steelworkers of America.

Since the end of World War II, most Mesabi Range iron mines have been represented by the Steelworkers. The notable modern exception is Cleveland-Cliffs’ Northshore Mine. But even there workers enjoy similar protections won by their union counterparts at other Cliffs mines.

The Steelworkers are a major industrial union, a core part of our country’s labor movement. Labor history distinguishes industrial unions from trade unions.

Trade unions are generally what were called “skilled” laborers, trained for specific jobs and earning pay commiserate with that training. The specificity of their jobs made unionization more tolerable for employers, and thus less controversial.

Industrial unions were slow to unionize because burgeoning corporations like U.S. Steel often used the cheapest labor possible, dubbing such workers “unskilled” labor. During the industrial revolution, unskilled workers were treated like parts in a machine, run to the their limit and replaced when broken.

Any student of Iron Range history knows how this was true for the immigrant workers who worked early underground and open pit mines here. Among the victims of this system were many ancestors of today’s Iron Rangers. Unionizing this workforce took much more time and conflict. Doing so built the modern American middle class and the “way of life” so proudly defended in our local politics.

Twin Metals’ project labor agreement, like PolyMet’s signed in 2007, means something only if the project is permitted and financed. The latter being the most difficult. And when you consider the companies involved in financing the projects, you see why there will be intense pressure to open these mines non-union.

This year international mining giant Glencore gained majority control of PolyMet. Another large mining company, Antofagasta, holds a significant stake in Twin Metals and may well take over there. Both Glencore and Antofagasta hold a poor labor record. Most of their facilities are non-union, and the ones where workers are able to unionize have been rife with lockouts and hard bargains.

In other words, if these mines open without union labor we could see an "open shop" domino effect that hits other mines during future recessions or bankruptcies. That’s what happened in Appalachian coal mines during the 1970s and ‘80s and there is no doubt that it can happen here, too.

Twin Metals and PolyMet happily signed project labor agreements for simple reasons. In a labor-friendly state like Minnesota just try finding large scale construction companies that is non-union. The big local constructors are all union. It’s obviously good for public relations, as evidenced by the news last week. Furthermore, if these companies ever seek bonding funding for infrastructure or other public financing, state law actually requires a project labor agreement.

A good faith gesture rings hollow if you have to do it anyway. Companies that would mine in Northern Minnesota promise jobs, safe mining practices and prosperity to local communities. They repeat these promises ad nauseam. So, what's wrong with putting those promises to ink and paper?

While financial and regulatory hurdles take significant time to clear, there’s only one good reason not to sign a neutrality agreement now. These development shells — PolyMet and Twin Metals, respectively — don’t want to saddle their corporate powers with long term labor costs. They only will if they must. I haven’t seen a labor union or labor politician yet willing to demand it of them.

Frankly, we should approach these projects very gingerly without such assurances. If these mines open non-union, industrial unions like the Steelworkers will lose their footing, perhaps fatally. Iron mines, no strangers to bankruptcies and reorganizations, could follow suit.

And as history shows, if one sector of the labor movement falls, others will follow. Trade unions that build non-union plants could find themselves next on the menu.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).

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