Nearly 1,000 United Steelworkers rallied Thursday on the Iron Range in support of renewing employment contracts with U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal USA that expire Saturday.
The three-year national labor contracts that expire Saturday evening affect a combined 30,000 U.S. iron and steel workers, including more than 2,000 on Minnesota’s Iron Range. U.S. Steel owns the Minntac plant in Mountain Iron and Keetac in Keewatin. ArcelorMittal owns the Minorca mine in Virginia, Minn.
Negotiations for the new employment contracts have been taking place in Pittsburgh since early July, and protests were held across the country Thursday.
Company officials at ArcelorMittal USA did not return phone calls for comment.
But steelworkers said late Friday that the union agreed to continue working at ArcelorMittal’s Minorca plant past the Saturday deadline and to keep negotiating toward a new contract in 48-hour rolling increments.
“This afternoon, there was a communication from our international about the temporary extension,” said John Dickinson, a 12-year ArcelorMittal electrician and the grievance chairman for USW Local 6115 in Virginia. “I think a lot of people anticipated there would be some sort of [contract] extension, but I also think that the membership is ready to take steps if need be.”
Talks also were expected to be extended for U.S. Steel.
U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox said in an e-mail Friday: “Talks have been ongoing, and we will work diligently to keep bargaining in good faith to reach an agreement. At this point, we are unaware of any strike-authorization vote taken by the USW. As with previous contract negotiations, our facilities will continue to operate in a safe and orderly manner. We hope to come to a mutually agreeable conclusion.”
Minnesota steelworkers attending three rallies Thursday said that contract negotiations have been difficult because the steel companies are pushing for employees and retirees to pay a greater share of health insurance costs and to give up protections in the event of layoffs or company ownership changes.
Chad Daniels, a Minntac electrical maintenance worker, said union members are upset that U.S. Steel is pushing for another round of concessions after major union concessions were made in 2012 and during the tumultuous plant idlings of 2015 and 2016.
“They want to get rid of any kind of protections for us. They want the world. But we already gave up benefits in 2012 and 2015. Times were bad then, and mines were facing bankruptcy. So people understood. But times now are very good. U.S. Steel is set to make almost $2 billion,” Daniels said. “After going to bat for the company and all the help we gave during the last five or six years, this is how they reward us?”
In its only public comment, ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel and mining company, said this week it is “in continuous dialogue with the United Steelworkers and is committed to reaching a fair and sustainable contract without a work stoppage.”
The steelworkers’ labor contracts are expiring at a critical time, when most taconite producers on the Iron Range are just getting back on their feet after a global downturn that caused several bankruptcies, seven Minnesota plants to idle for months and 2,000 layoffs across northeastern Minnesota.