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Iron Miners Ready to Fight

by J Burger |
July 21, 2004
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Sign: Cleveland Cliffs is hiring replacement workers - this practice must stop.
Some of the 700 iron miners who rallied on July 16 in Chisholm, Minnesota. (Fight Back! News/J Burger)

Chisholm, MN - With a contract set to expire July 31, the stage is set for a major confrontation between iron miners and the Cleveland Cliffs Inc. Cleveland Cliffs is demanding concessions, including take-aways of retirees’ health care. The company says that it will answer any strike by hiring scabs. Housing for strikebreakers has been placed at the Hibbing mine. Scabs are being trained in the town of Silver Bay.

700 miners and their supporters rallied July 16 in Chisholm to reject concessions and union busting. Members of United Steel Workers Locals 2705 and 6860 made it clear that they were determined to fight back.

“If scabs are brought here to the mines on the Iron Range, I say, run right the hell out of here,” said Joe Strleker. Strleker, also a steelworker, is currently part of the strike against Aitkin Iron Works in a nearby town.

Minnesota's iron mining industry is heavily unionized and has a proud tradition of struggle. Observers agree that an attempt to run a mine with scabs in the heart of the Iron Range could result in an explosion. Miners at the rally on July 16 were looking back to other big northern Minnesota labor struggles, such as the 1989 battle at BE&K in International Falls, where $2 million damage was done to scab housing in a single day.

It is vital that the labor movement in Minnesota get behind the workers of Cleveland Cliffs. A setback on the Range would hurt all workers in the state. Their standard of living, pensions and health care have been a key issues in this latest contract round.

Minnesota iron ore is generally mined as taconite and processed into pellets which are in high demand, and the companies are raking in the dough. Miners were reminded at the rally that Cleveland Cliffs agreed to the pension and healthcare benefits more than 40 years ago. “We are not going to give up the fight in these negotiations,” said David Foster, District 11 director of the Steelworkers.

“For 65 years, the steelworkers have produced wealth in the Iron Range,” Foster said to the worked-up crowd. “Let us not forget, in the 1930s, when there were no unions to protect workers’ rights, when the police beat us, when the bosses laughed all the way to the bank, miners and workers decided to not give up, and sat down on the job, wouldn't move until a fair contract was had.”