Just hours before labor contracts expired at midnight Friday, the United Steelworkers union representing three Minnesota taconite plants agreed to contract extensions that would temporarily avoid a strike.

For Hibbing Taconite and United Taconite, both owned by Cliffs Natural Resources, the additional time means that the union must give 48 hours' written notice before a strike and that the company must give the same amount of notice before a lockout.

"The extension will keep the mines operating while negotiations continue," said Wayne Ranick, a United Steelworkers spokesman in Pittsburgh.

At ArcelorMittal's Minorca Mine on the Iron Range, the union said it was willing to keep talks going beyond the Friday midnight deadline. The company, however, had not yet responded to the union's offer.

Separately, talks continued Friday without resolution for U.S. Steel taconite plants in Keewatin and Mountain Iron. That contract, which expires at midnight Saturday, a day later than previously disclosed, affects 1,330 U.S. Steel workers in Minnesota. U.S. Steel officials declined to comment for this article.

At issue in the marathon talks is employee health care costs. For ArcelorMittal, a proposal to create a two-tier wage system that offers lower pay and no pension for new hires has been a sticking point between the union and company management.

Both Cliffs and ArcelorMittal already were taking steps to prepare for a walkout. Cliffs, which has 1,090 union workers in Minnesota, has hired temporary workers, said Cliffs spokeswoman Sandy Karnowski. ArcelorMittal is securing its property and equipment in the event of a work stoppage.

Union officials representing ArcelorMittal workers proposed to their membership Friday that they continue to work even if labor talks continued past Friday's midnight deadline.

"We are not taking the strike option off the table. We are saying that it is in our best interest to not call a strike at this time," the union said in a letter to members. The goal "is for all of us to continue working while we continue to press forward in an effort to reach an acceptable contract. Whether the company will agree to our offer to continue to work while we continue to bargain ... or lock us out remains unknown at this time."

ArcelorMittal, which has 330 workers in Minnesota and thousands more across the United States, did not return calls seeking comment.

A union official for U.S. Steel workers said members at USS Keetac in Keewatin and USS Minntac in Mountain Iron were considering a temporary contract extension if a labor agreement isn't been hammered out by midnight Saturday.

"There has been some talk" about an extension, said R.J. Hufnagel, another Steelworkers spokesman in Pittsburgh. "We have been talking all week and plan to keep talking until we get an agreement."

Minnesota state and business leaders fear that a strike would halt paychecks and hurt a region that is just regaining its footing. Minnesota's $3.1 billion taconite industry supports 17,000 direct and indirect jobs in the state.

Jim Currie, CEO and president of the Laurentian Chamber of Commerce, which represents the iron ore mines and the region's businesses, is worried.

"All the area mines are very big community players and collectively represent several thousand workers," he said. "It's the employees who are worried about their livelihood."

In all, 2,770 unionized taconite workers on the Iron Range are waiting for labor contracts to finalize. Most union officials said little about the specific issues holding up talks.

What is known is that steelworkers and mine owners began slogging through issues in Pittsburgh a month ago. They will ultimately decide who will pay for rising health care costs and resolve ArcelorMittal's proposal to create a two-tier wage and benefit system.

The union said AcelorMittal also wants the ability to implement layoffs and 32-hour work weeks at its discretion; eliminate an 80 percent pension funding requirement; hire outside contractors; and soften worker seniority rules.

Union officials said the proposals were "irresponsible" and "dangerous."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725