U.S. Steel is in the process of calling back all 400 laid-off workers at its Minntac taconite pellet plant on the Iron Range, company officials confirmed Friday.
Some 68 idled iron and maintenance workers have already been called back to the Mountain Iron plant, and the others should be returning to work in about two weeks.
"Our pellet balance throughout our North American flat-rolled facilities necessitates a restart" of the idled portions of the operation, said U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone in an e-mail.
U.S. Steel's Keetac plant in Keewatin remains idled, she said. About 412 Keetac workers remain laid off from that facility.
The union at the plant, U.S. Steelworkers, shared the news about Minntac with union members Friday in an online post. Local 1938 President Lowell Carlon acknowledged the "rough stretch" workers have endured during the current industry downturn and thanked them. "We can make it through just about anything if we work together as a union."
Minntac's good news came after three weeks of contract negotiations in Pittsburgh between the union and U.S. Steel officials. The work resumption is a welcome shot in the arm to a Minnesota region hit hard by an industry slowdown that hurt several Iron Range ore producers, vendors, restaurants and scores of ancillary businesses.
Minntac, as well as the Keetac plant, originally laid off workers this spring because of inventory balance issues, the taconite industry's global pricing slump and problems arising from the significant rise in imported steel from China and other nations.
Boone said Minntac's decision to recall workers had to do with internal inventory rebalancing needs and was not the result of big improvements seen in the global iron and steel industry.
In addition to the partial and temporary idling at Minntac, Magnetation laid off workers at its "Plant 1" facility in Keewatin in May and then filed for bankruptcy protection. Soon after, Steel Dynamics laid off 200 workers and idled Mesabi Nugget in Hoyt Lakes and Mining Resources in Chisholm.
Local officials said there has been no word that other taconite plants besides Minntac planned to call laid off workers back.
Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Minnesota Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, said during a phone interview Friday that the state is keeping a sharp eye on all the layoffs and union discussions.
He noted that Minntac's resumption of work doesn't solve long-term woes for the industry like the global pricing slump that has world iron ore selling at half its normal value.
Minntac's worker recall "was about inventory rebalancing. It's not a global solution for steel dumping," Phillips said. Still, "I am pleased. [The recall] was a little earlier than we thought. I thought that it would be October or November before workers were called back."
He hopes the news gets area residents to pry open their wallets again.
"I hope these callbacks actually provide some encouraging news for the whole economy and that people will resume their normal spending habits," he said. "What happens is that when some people get laid off, people immediately think its 1982 again and they quit spending their money. They hunker down and the whole community clams up."
U.S. Steel's layoffs have hurt retailers, restaurants and car sales. And Magnetation's bankruptcy left some suppliers unpaid and hurting.
"Some may not recover from this," Phillips said.
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725