State and national political leaders, including White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, will visit Minnesota's Iron Range on Tuesday in the latest effort to revitalize an area socked by mining industry layoffs.
About 2,000 workers have been laid off since spring, with Northshore Mining in Silver Bay the latest, throwing 540 people out of work. More than half of the area's 11 major mining operations are not operating. The loss of jobs that pay an average of nearly $90,000 per year trickles down to the rest of the economy on the Iron Range, hurting related businesses and retailers.
Local leaders are pressuring President Obama to take tough action to confront allegations of steel dumping by several Asian countries, which they say is crippling the local steel industry.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, a Democrat who represents the region in Congress, said he wants to ensure that the chief of staff gets a better sense of the gravity of the situation in northern Minnesota. "I hope that we will be persuasive enough to secure a presidential intervention" on the trade issue, Nolan said.
A glut of steel production around the world and a stalling Chinese economy have combined to push down iron-ore prices to their lowest in a decade, and there's no sign of immediate recovery.
Unlike busts of the past in economically volatile northeastern Minnesota, many locals fear that a boom will not follow.
Companies and their workers blame unfair imports of foreign steel, and that's where the elected officials come in. The delegation visiting Tuesday will comprise both the state's U.S. senators, Gov. Mark Dayton, legislative leaders and, in McDonough, one of Obama's closest advisers. The group will visit the Mesabi Range College in Virginia, with other events also expected.
"Minnesota's Iron Range continues to struggle through one of the worst downturns in decades, and we must fight back to protect the Northland," said U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. "Illegal foreign trade practices are hurting iron ore and steel operations and threaten the livelihoods of our workers."
Nolan has called for a five-year moratorium on foreign steel and steel-product imports, asking Obama to use his authority under the Trade Act of 1974 to impose high tariffs that would protect Minnesota industry.
About 600 iron miners will see their unemployment benefits exhausted in February or March, before the regular 2016 legislative session begins and the Legislature can extend aid.
Dayton and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, have called for a special session to help affected Iron Range workers. House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has agreed that the workers need help, but he has been noncommittal about a special session. He plans to join the event on Tuesday.
"I am going to show that this is not a partisan issue and to lend support to the federal government taking some action," Daudt said.