Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

United Taconite

Good news for the Iron Range, but work on diversification must continue

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As we report this week, the taconite industry appears to be in recovery mode in the wake of tough new enforcement action by the Obama administration against a surge of foreign steel dumping that swamped the U.S. markets beginning last year.

It’s easy in this era of intense, and sometimes justified, skepticism toward government and its role in society, to ignore political leaders when they take constructive steps, but that isn’t going to happen this week, at least not in these pages.

When the steel industry hit the skids, Minnesota’s political leaders, including both our U.S. Senators and Rep. Rick Nolan, jumped into the fray with both feet, demanding quick action to stem the flow of illegal imports. The Obama administration, to its credit, understood the threat to a vital domestic industry and took the bold action that the circumstances demanded. All around deserve credit for a prompt and effective response.

As a result, a situation that heralded potential crisis was made manageable and the domestic steel industry appears to be on the slow road to recovery, at least for now.

Last month’s call back of workers at Northshore and this week’s announcement that United Taconite will be back up and running by the fall, with a new 10-year supply agreement in place, are just the latest signs of improving market conditions. There’s still room for more improvement, of course, with as many as 800 Iron Range mineworkers still out of a job. But more than half of those laid off last year will soon be back on the job.

It is, of course, worth noting that much of the threat to the industry came about as a result of so-called “free trade” policies and agreements instituted by a succession of both Republican and Democratic administrations. Such free trade deals have badly weakened the status of America’s workers, particularly in the manufacturing sector, who are now forced to “compete” with countries that pay workers far less and provide few health and safety protections. It’s been a race to the bottom that has served to eliminate good-paying jobs, suppress wages, and weaken environmental laws here at home.

At least in this instance, our political leaders took action to stop foreign dumping that went well beyond what is permitted even by the most permissive trade pacts. In doing so, they took a stand for workers and a critical domestic industry— a hopeful sign.

While the recent good news has restored some optimism that the worst may be over for the Iron Range—at least for now— the region and its political leaders should guard against the complacency that always seems to return whenever the mines start producing again. The time to focus on diversification is when the mines are recovering, because that inevitably means the next downturn is right around the corner. The region, too often, lurches from complacency to crisis mode and that’s not the way to build a broader and stronger economy on the Mesabi Range, one that’s less dependent on the ups and downs of commodity prices determined by global economics. The good news is that the crisis caught the attention of political leaders. Now, we need to keep them engaged for the longer term work of building an economy that’s less subject to boom and bust.

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