The United Steelworkers union and five of Minnesota's six taconite plants are scrambling to reach a new labor agreement as they seek to avert a strike that would affect 2,770 workers across the state's Iron Range.

But with contracts expiring Friday at midnight, both sides said they are preparing for the worst. At least one taconite plant operator is bringing in temporary workers, while union members have been in meetings to discuss how they would endure a strike. Contracts that expire Friday include Hibbing Taconite, United Taconite, ArcelorMittal, USS Keetac and USS Minntac.

Union leaders and mining executives have been negotiating since early August in Pittsburgh, said Joyce Russotto, an assistant at the union's district office in Minneapolis. There are three sets of negotiations, one with each of Minnesota's three key taconite plant owners. Neither the union or the owners of the plants would say which issues were hampering talks.

Cliffs Natural Resources owns Hibbing Taconite and United Taconite operations in Hibbing, Eveleth and Forbes as well as the nonunion Northshore Mining facility in Silver Bay. Cliffs also owns two taconite plants in Michigan, where contracts are also set to expire Friday at midnight.

U.S. Steel owns the Keetac and Minntac plants in Keewatin and Mountain Iron, respectively. ArcelorMittal runs a facility in Virginia, Minn.

Cliffs spokeswoman Sandy Karnowski said her company hopes the negotiations ultimately result in a "fair and equitable labor contract" that both sides can agree on.

However, Cliffs is "making preparations in case an agreement is not reached ... and that includes bringing in temp workers in the event of a strike," she said. "We would work with our salaried workers and the temp workers to make sure that we can provide product to our customers."

Would affect thousands

A strike would affect 1,090 Cliffs workers in Hibbing, Forbes and Eveleth; 1,330 Cliffs workers in Michigan; 1,350 U.S. Steel workers in Mountain Iron and Keewatin, and 330 workers at ArcelorMittal in Virginia, Minn., according to figures on file with the state's Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB).

IRRRB officials declined to comment on labor talks.

Meanwhile, union members have been meeting and preparing for the possibility of a strike. The Iron Range's last strike occurred at Hibbing Taconite in 1993 and lasted 37 days. Steelworkers at the now-defunct LTV Steel Mining Co. in Hoyt Lakes struck in 1977.

Frank Jenko, president of the United Steelworkers Local 2705 in Chisholm, posted a message on the union's website saying there was nothing substantive to report Wednesday.

"The [Cliffs] company continues with the same strategy they have had from Day One," Jenko wrote. "Simply put, they are attempting to run out the negotiations clock without offering anything of value to the employee."

Jenko went onto complain about Cliffs hiring of temporary workers and the food trucks brought in to feed them. He referred to them as tactics of intimidation.

Karnowski, the Cliffs spokeswoman, called the company's preparation a necessity to ensure that production continues. But she also said that it's not unusual for talks to drag on until very close to the contract expiration.

In 2004, a contract set to expire July 31 won agreement on July 27. In 2008, a tentative agreement wasn't reached until four hours before the midnight expiration.

Officials from U.S. Steel, the IRRRB and the Iron Mining Association declined to comment.

Northeastern Minnesota holds one of the richest iron ore deposits in the country. Mine and plant owners dig up, heat and convert the taconite ore into pellets that are shipped to other states to be processed into steel.

The industry is an economic bellwether for the state, producing about 40 million tons of taconite a year, $1.8 billion in sales, wages and mining fees and more than 17,000 jobs for miners, factory workers and associated vendors.

The cyclical nature of the industry as well as labor disruptions have hurt the stability of the region at times, economists say. The total economic impact to Minnesota from taconite is considered to be $3.1 billion. That includes, wages, taxes, sales, and vendor contracts and equipment purchases.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725