Last time at the table

John Rebrovich poses in the United Steel Workers district office in Eveleth.

EVELETH — It's the last negotiations for John Rebrovich.

Rebrovich, a United Steelworkers (USW) leader for more than 40 years, is retiring following this year's contract negotiations between steelworkers and mining companies.

“This will probably be my last bargaining,” said Rebrovich, USW District 11 assistant director. “I had thought about going earlier, but I think I have one left in me. I've mentioned it to some. But I haven't announced it to the world yet.”

Well, until now.

Rebrovich's retirement marks the end of an era.

A third generation miner, Rebrovich — or simply “Reb,” as he's known to friends — has helped steer Iron Range miners and the steelworkers union through some of the toughest of times.

For decades, he's helped negotiate steelworker labor contracts with Iron Range mining companies. He's helped guide miners and their families through some the Iron Range's most difficult economic years. He's fought for workers' wages, health and pension benefits. And he's stood up for affordable health care for retirees.

“John is just a quality guy who learned his craft well,” said Tom Conway, USW International vice president. “He could always be counted on to put forth a good case in arbitration and has been invaluable on the Range in dealing with the tricky environmental issues that always come up on the Range. There's a pocket of Range legislators up there and he knows every one of them and also has a good personal relationship with the governor. Certainly, I rely on him immensely to keep things in check.”

Rebrovich's work and relationships over more than four decades have been instrumental in the good wages and benefits earned by miners today.

“John has been a solid union guy as long as I've known him,” said Bob Bratulich, former USW District 11 director. “When it came to iron ore negotiations, he was my right hand guy. John has always had a good relationship with the rank and file and I bounced a lot of stuff off him. He's smart, he's thoughtful, he doesn't go off the deep end, and he's just a good guy.”

Rebrovich, however, is quick to praise others.

“I've been pretty blessed with having good local union folks on the front lines of all of this,” said Rebrovich. “I've had a lot of good people to work with. In general, most of them speak from the heart and not from the pocketbook. Without them, and without the people in the mines who do the work day-to-day, we wouldn't be where we are today.”

Rebrovich, who grew up in Keewatin, credits his upbringing for his deep desire to help miners.

Rebrovich's grandfather, Frank, came from Croatia to work with a pick and shovel in an underground mine near Keewatin.

“I remember my grandfather used to have little Sunday garage parties where everybody would bring in the squeeze boxes,” said Rebrovich. “They would talk politics and about other stuff you couldn't talk about in the open, because you'd get banned.”

Rebrovich's father, Frank, who died of a heart attack at age 54, was a World War II veteran who fought at Iwo Jima before returning to the Iron Range and working as a maintenance mechanic at National Steel Pellet Co. and Eveleth Taconite.

Rebrovich learned a lot at the kitchen table.

“My dad didn't talk about specifics, but we heard a lot at the supper table about how important the union was,” said Rebrovich. “My dad, he was an old Marine Corps guy. I learned a lot from him and from Gene Skraba (a former USW staff representative), who was my dad's partner at work. That's where I got a lot of my education about the union. It was 'don't be a whiner, go out and do something about it'.”

At age 17, Rebrovich got his first taste of union work when his father brought him to Eveleth Taconite's plant in Forbes to help set up a picket line near the shores of the St. Louis River.

“We were setting things up, but lo and behold they never did go on strike,” said Rebrovich.

Rebrovich worked as a summer student at Eveleth Taconite and then as a construction worker helping build National Steel Pellet Co. in Keewatin and Hibbing Taconite.

In 1976, he was hired into operations at Hibbing Taconite's pellet plant and later worked as a service truck driver and at central shops.

His labor career took off when he was appointed a grievance chair at Hibbing Taconite and a strike captain for USW Local 2705.

In 1977, thousands of Iron Range miners went on strike to fight for the same incentives as steel industry workers. The four-month-long strike was one of the Iron Range's most difficult and prolonged modern day labor conflicts, but the union and miners prevailed.

Because of their determination, iron miners today receive the same incentives as steel industry employees.

“It's a big chunk of money,” said Rebrovich of the incentives. “A lot of guys getting it today don't realize the sacrifice that was made. It was a tough four months, but we wound up coming out damn good. People don't know it today, but they get it on their paychecks every two weeks.”

Rebrovich went on to be elected vice president of the Hibbing Taconite local and then president.

In 1999, he became a USW staff representative, later a sub director, and then assistant director.

Rebrovich says he always saw himself as a miner and working for miners.

“I think I did it because my family did it and all my neighbors did it,” said Rebrovich. “I've always wanted to defend the working person and see retirees retire in dignity.”

Myron Devyak, a late Local 2705 president, and Bratlulich, who had also been president of Local 1938 at U.S. Steel's Minntac Mine, mentored Rebrovich and helped him learn how to represent workers, said Rebrovich.

“We were young at the time and Myron sort of challenged us,” said Rebrovich. “If we had a grievance, he said “okay, go prove it.” So he taught us a lot. We had to do the research.”

Bratulich taught him negotiating skills and more.

“Bob taught me a lot,” said Rebrovich. “Over the years, I learned a heck of a lot from Bob about arbitration and the art of bargaining.”

Rebrovich says he's seen big changes over the years in working conditions, safety, wages, benefits, and in cooperation between mining companies and union.

“For many many years all we did was put up our guards and battle away,” said Rebrovich. “But as we have seen over the years with the hits we have taken from the steel imports and steel dumping, it made more and more sense to do it together. Although bargaining still gets tense, it's not like the old days when you'd come in and pound your fist. It's more cordial and there's more understanding. A lot of facts get exchanged.”

Today, Rebrovich is co-chair of the Iron Ore Alliance, a partnership between the USW and U.S. Steel.

Steel imports remain an issue. Union membership has dropped dramatically since the heydays of the late 1970s. Fewer union members are active in union activities than years ago. And a new round of contract negotiations is beginning.

Health care costs, wages for active workers and retiree health care, are expected to be top issues in this year's negotiations. Wages were frozen in the last negotiations.

However, after 43 years, Rebrovich says he leaves with pride in Iron Range miners and in the standard of living the union has helped create.

“I'm most proud of what this union has done for its members over the years,” said Rebrovich. “We've maintained a good living for those who work in the mines. They're able to raise families, enjoy the outdoors up here, retire in dignity, and hopefully pass it onto the next generation. Quite frankly, we're the highest paid of any industrialized union in terms of wages and benefits in North America and we're proud of that legacy.”

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