The United Steelworkers union and owners of five taconite plants in Minnesota's Iron Range continued labor talks Thursday, with employee health care being a key hurdle to reaching an agreement.

Negotiations between Cliffs Natural Resources, U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal and the union started earlier this month but are going down to the wire as labor contracts expire at midnight Friday.

At issue for both sides is employee medical care -- and who will shoulder the burden of its ballooning costs.

"We are the only industrialized democracy that doesn't have [universal] health care and where the workers have to negotiate that as part of their compensation," said United Steelworkers spokesman Wayne Ranick during a phone interview Thursday.

The marathon talks, and the possibility of a strike, are causing angst among the 17,000 Minnesota Iron Rangers whose livelihoods are tied to Minnesota's $3.1 billion taconite industry. The contracts directly affect 2,770 union workers in the state and cover five of the six plants that convert iron ore into taconite pellets that later are turned into steel.

If no agreement is reached by the midnight deadline, there is a chance workers could walk off the job. But union officials insisted that a strike isn't a certainty.

So far, only union members from Cliffs' Hibbing Taconite in Hibbing and United Taconite in Eveleth and Forbes have taken a strike authorization vote. If a strike occurs, 1,090 workers from those facilities would forgo their paychecks.

If union members from U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal called and won a strike vote, it would affect another 1,680 workers.

That worries Laurentian Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Currie.

"We sincerely hope that an agreement can be reached. We have several thousand employees in our area mines up here. The mines obviously play a big role in keeping dollar bills circulating through the communities."

Taconite workers represent the top 5 percent of all wage earners in the quad cities of Eveleth, Virginia, Gilbert and Mountain Iron and in nearby Hibbing and Keewatin. "So we are certainly hopeful" that a deal can be reached, he said.

Ranick emphasized that there still is time to reach an agreement and that there are several possible outcomes even if a deal isn't reached.

"We are still at the bargaining table, talking, and that is always a good sign," Ranick said. "A lot of times things really become focused as you approach that deadline."

If talks don't result in a new contract by midnight, Ranick said the union and taconite companies might agree to extend the old contract for a few days, or even a month.

Cliffs spokeswoman Sandy Karnowski said the company already has hired temporary workers in the event of a strike. However, she said that it's not unusual for talks to go on to the contract expiration hour.

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.

This time around, union officials in Minnesota declined to state which issues are the most contentious beyond health care. Workers at ArcelorMittal are said to be negotiating over hard-fought contract language.

But Ranick said health care is one issue that is consistent with union workers from all three taconite companies on the Iron Range.

"Health care costs are always a critical issue in all of these negotiations because the costs keep escalating and they have to be paid for," he said.

Officials at U.S. Steel and Cliffs declined to comment about specific contract issues. ArcelorMittal, which runs a taconite facility in Virginia, Minn., could not be reached for comment.

U.S. Steel owns USS Keetac in Keewatin and USS Minntac in Mountain Iron.

In addition to Hibbing Taconite and United Taconite, Cliffs also owns the nonunion NorthStar Mining plant in Silver Bay.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725