Steelworker deal averts threat of strike on Iron Range

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 10, 2012 - 9:34 PM

Workers at two Cliffs Natural Resources mines were the last to reach tentative contract agreements.

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A P&H electric rope shovel works at an open pit mine at the Hibbing Taconite Co. pellet manufacturing plant, operated by Cliff's Natural Resources Inc., in Hibbing, Minn.

Photo: Ariana Lindquist, Bloomberg

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The United Steelworkers of America and Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. reached a tentative agreement on Wednesday, the last in a series of labor deals covering more than 2,700 Iron Range workers.

No details for the proposed three-year contract were released. "We're just pleased we have a contract," said Sandy Karnowski, a company spokeswoman.

The proposed agreement covers 1,090 Minnesota workers at the United Taconite and Hibbing Taconite mines, as well as about 1,300 workers in Michigan at the company's Empire and Tilden mines. The agreement is pending until union workers ratify it, but it appears to end the threat of large-scale work stoppages at taconite facilities in northern Minnesota.

Senior Vice President David Blake said the tentative agreement "provides Cliffs a competitive cost structure for future success."

A spokesman for United Steelworkers of America couldn't be reached for comment.

The old contract expired Sept. 1, but the two sides agreed to extend the contact with no strike and no lockout without at least 48 hours' notice from either side.

Earlier this fall, the Steelworkers reached new contract agreements covering 1,350 workers at U.S. Steel mines in Keewatin and Mountain Iron and 330 workers at the Minorca Mine near Virginia, which is owned by ArcelorMittal USA.

The deals were part of nationwide contract talks that have resulted in new agreements covering more than 30,000 union members.

Minnesota business and development leaders had feared a strike would have derailed the Iron Range's fragile economic recovery. Minnesota's $3.1 billion taconite industry is estimated to directly and indirectly support about 17,000 jobs.

As the contracts were settled, "Everyone was breathing a sigh of relief," said longtime state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, who's retiring after the coming election. "Initially, there was a fear that replacement workers would have been brought in, and that would have been miserable for everyone. But everyone kept on negotiating. Without mining, there's no northern Minnesota from Hinckley on up. Having the contracts settled is extremely important not just for the Range but for Duluth, International Falls and all the way down to Brainerd and up the North Shore."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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