IRON RANGE — The first Wednesday of every month, a group of local silver-haired activists known as the Steelworker Organization of Active Retirees — known simply as SOAR — gets together for donuts, coffee and to dish on politics.
“We have roughly 300-plus members, and they come from U.S. Steel, [former] EVTAC, Hibbing Taconite, and around the area,” SOAR President Sam Ricker recently told the Hibbing Daily Tribune. “It’s just about getting people together and to find out about political campaigns.”
The local SOAR chapter is part of a larger organization that was first established in 1985 to help strengthen the Steelworkers union by bringing together retirees to act as advocates, activists and volunteers in the communities where they lived. The members are comprised of former miners, their spouses and, according to Ricker, they’ve also opened up membership to non-Steelworkers who embody the same principals and values their group upholds.
According to usw.org, SOAR leaders encouraged chapter formations in 2011 to foster more direct communication between chapter leaders and their local unions. The idea was to help gain insight on negotiation issues regarding retirees. As the website states, “With the establishment of SOAR, our union solidified its focus on the unique issues impacting USW retirees and their spouses. Further, SOAR has been engaged in countless efforts to assure security for current and future generations of retirees, regardless of whether they belong to a union or not.”
Before Ricker became president of his local SOAR chapter, he was employed for 36 years at the former Eveleth Taconite Co. — aka “EVTAC.” The 1961 Nashwauk graduate was working in Minneapolis for Honeywell before he returned to the area and began working at EVTAC in the late ‘60s as a maintenance mechanic. Two years later, he became a machinist and would stick at that job for the next 34 years.
“It seemed to change over the years, as new management came in,” Ricker said, reflecting how the atmosphere shifted from “more personal” to “more business” during his time there.
Ricker then retired in January 2003, mere months before the plant shut down which resulted in 450 employees getting laid off. Eventually the closed plant would be purchased by Cliffs and would reopen as United Taconite, which celebrated 50 years of iron ore production at the Eveleth site in 2014.
“I got involved with SOAR two years after I retired,” Ricker told the HDT. “A friend of mine mentioned they were having these meetings, and I was the president of Local 6860 for approximately 12 years. For the 36 years I worked, at least 30 I was in some kind of office or leadership-type role.”
And in less than two years, he would be president of his SOAR chapter.
Ricker noted that there are two other groups nearby — in Aurora and in Marble — but the Eveleth chapter meets at 10 a.m. the first Wednesday of each month in the Local 6860 office. Twenty “regulars” attend most meetings, though that number tends to increase the closer it gets to an election. A little, anyway. For the most part, the group engages in casual debates with discussions focusing in on which candidates to get behind the closer they get to ballot casting time.
“We do have our own endorsing system,” Ricker said. “When you meet with the active [Steelworkers], you may have a majority vote and it may happen to be the candidate we support. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s the same, but there are sometimes that it could be a different selection.” When that happens, he said, SOAR members will default to the active union members’ majority vote so they can remain unified.
As for their activism on the local level, Ricker said that mainly comes down to making phone calls. “There aren’t too many who do that, but I guess I would be one of them,” he chuckled. “Otherwise it’s just getting the word out and talking to people when attending different functions. Especially when the Steelworkers have a contract conflict — we’ll attend those meetings and hold a banner. We try to provide any assistance we can when they ask for it.”
Each July, the members from all three local SOAR chapters get together for a picnic. They take turns deciding who will host and extend invitations to local politicians. Their last event took place in Pengilly, where state Senator David Tomassoni and other politicians made appearances for the roughly 50 or so people in attendance, Ricker said.
The group also walks in parades and shows up for their active Steelworkers when called upon. Mostly, however, Ricker insists their get togethers are of a casual nature — his favorite part being the conversations, which “never get too heated.”
“It’s more of a social club,” Ricker said, describing it as a place to chew about local news, politics and whatever is happening in their lives. “When there's nothing going on politically, we bring up things that have happened in the past, joking around in a nice format.”
They also use the hour long meetings to acknowledge and honor any members who have passed away.
“Overall, it’s been pretty peaceful. Everyone pretty much as their own beliefs, and they’re all welcome,” Ricker added.
As for membership fees, Ricker explained that the first year is usually paid by the Local the retiree is from, after that it’s $12 for the member, and $3 for the spouse annually. Anyone interested in joining the Eveleth chapter of SOAR can contact Ricker at 218-744-4668. “They’re entirely welcome to come and voice their opinion and join in the conversation and enjoy some coffee and donuts.”