United Steelworkers (USW) is making an effort to unionize miners at Northshore Mining Company.
Steelworker officials are conducting an organizing campaign at Northshore's taconite mine in Babbitt and processing plant in Silver Bay to determine whether a majority of the facility's roughly 480 hourly-paid miners support USW representation.
“We're just trying to give them a voice,” John Arbogast, USW District 11 staff representative said. “What we tell them is once you have a union and a contract, everything like wages and pensions are in a contract and guaranteed.”
USW representation at Northshore Mining Co. would be a major landmark in the union representation of miners in northeastern Minnesota.
Of northeastern Minnesota's six taconite plants, Northshore has for decades been the only non-union facility.
Over the course of the 90-day campaign, Northshore miners will complete cards rather than casting votes to indicate whether they support USW representation.
If the “card check,” campaign indicates a majority of Northshore's hourly-paid miners support USW representation, the USW would then put together proposals surrounding wages, benefits, pensions, profit sharing, other issues, and begin bargaining to reach a labor contract with facility owner Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc.
“That would be our desire, to have something put together and completed as soon as possible that benefits the company and the employees,” Emil Ramirez, USW District 11 director said. “It's important for us. We feel we represent the miners and the miners union in this country and to pick up 500 miners where they have a voice at the table in wages and other issues is really important to us.”
Cleveland-Cliffs regards its relationship with the USW and respects the decision of its Northshore workforce, the company said.
“We value our relationship with the USW and have worked cooperatively with them for many years,” the company said in a statement issued by Patricia Persico, director - corporate communications. “This campaign represents a choice for our workforce at Northshore and we will respect their decision. Regardless of the outcome, Cleveland-Cliffs is confident we can manage the operation successfully.”
Several past efforts to organize Northshore miners were unsuccessful.
However, as Cleveland-Cliffs has grown to become the largest iron ore producer in the nation and a major producer of steel, Ramirez says he believes workers at Northshore have a desire to share in the same profits and benefits as other workers in the industry.
“I just think for me, personally, in looking at Cliffs expanding with the purchase of Arcelor and AK Steel and being profitable is what they're looking at,” Ramirez said. “And we've had a decent relationship with the top level people at Cliffs.”
Miners at Babbitt and Silver Bay approached the union about organizing, Arbogast said.
Northshore hourly workers' current wages and benefits cannot be altered during the organizing campaign, Arbogast said.
“Everything they have is protected by federal law,” Arbogast said. “Everything Northshore has stays into effect until we negotiate a contract.”
Under a neutrality agreement with Cleveland-Cliffs, USW representatives are currently visiting individually and in small groups with hourly workers at the mine and plant to talk about USW representation, Arbogast said.
The USW would seek to improve safety, health care, training, and other labor issues, he said.
“They get to vote on it (a labor contract), elect leadership and establish a local,” Arbogast said. “This gives them a seat at the table.”
The facility is North America's first commercial taconite plant.
It opened in 1956 as Reserve Mining Co. and operated until 1986 when it closed in a bankruptcy.
Cyprus Minerals of Denver, Colo. took over ownership in 1989. Cleveland-Cliffs in 1994 became sole owner.
Today, Cleveland-Cliffs is North America's largest producer of flat rolled steel, iron ore pellets and the only American iron ore producer that makes DR-grade pellets.
Made at Northshore, those pellets feed a new $100 million Cleveland-Cliffs direct reduction plant in Toledo, Ohio.
Workers at the Toledo plant recently opted for USW representation, Arbogast said.
Hourly workers at Cleveland-Cliffs' three other other northeastern Minnesota iron ore plants – Hibbing Taconite, United Taconite and Minorca Mine – are all USW represented.
Ramirez says other opportunities to grow USW membership at future Minnesota mining projects are ahead.
“I think from all the surveys we've seen from workers in this country, they're ready to be represented,” Ramirez said. “We think there's a great opportunity to grow our membership in the mining sector.”