Steelworkers, mining companies head to bargaining table

Michael Woods, United Steelworkers union District 11 International staff representative, Eveleth office, will be part of a steelworkers' negotiating team from the Iron Range which this summer meets with mining company officials in Pittsburgh to negotiate a new labor contract for steelworkers. 

EVELETH — Two United Steelworkers conferences aimed at setting the direction for this summer’s labor contract negotiations between steelworkers, mining and steel companies, are underway in Pittsburgh.

A Basic Steel Industry Conference, attended by up to 200 steelworker union officials from across the nation, began Tuesday and runs through today.

“All the steel and steel-related industries will be there,” said John Rebrovich, United Steelworkers (USW) District 11 assistant to the director. “We will go through information on how the domestic industry is doing and how the world steel market is doing.”

The information includes sales, cost, profit, pension, production, and other key statistics for each domestic steel and iron ore producer. The information, provided by each company, is available to USW negotiators under the National Labor Relations Act.

Rebrovich says the conference will define key issues for the coming labor contract negotiations between the USW and domestic iron ore mining and steel companies.

The current labor contract for USW miners at ArcelorMittal Minorca and United States Steel facilities in Keewatin and Mountain Iron, expires at midnight Sept 1. The current labor contract for USW workers at Cleveland-Cliffs owned and managed mines at Hibbing Taconite and United Taconite, expires at midnight Oct. 1.

About 3,500 to 3,600 USW members who work at five USW-represented mines on the Iron Range, are covered under USW-steel industry negotiated labor agreements.

“What we’ll do at the Basic Steel Industry Conference is prepare a document as to whether its pensions, health care, public policy, tariffs, other areas where we want to see improvements, and whether we need to change contract language,” said Rebrovich.

The document then becomes a starting point for USW negotiators in contract talks with the companies.

On Thursday, a separate Iron Ore Conference is being held in Pittsburgh.

The Iron Ore Conference includes USW representatives from domestic iron ore operations, but not the steel industry.

A policy document from the Iron Ore Conference will also be produced, providing an outline for contract negotiations with mining companies.

“We do have some things in common with steel mills like wages and pensions,” said Rebrovich. “But we do have some different things, so we come out of the Iron Ore Conference with a separate statement for that.”

It’s expected that USW and negotiators for ArcelorMittal and United States Steel will start meeting near the end of July to begin hammering out a new labor contract for USW workers at those company’s facilities, said Rebrovich.

Negotiations for Cleveland-Cliffs owned or managed facilities likely won’t start until after Labor Day, said Michael Woods, a District 11 international staff representative in Eveleth.

Until negotiations conclude, it’s not known how many years a new labor contract would cover, said Rebrovich.

The current labor contract was a three-year deal. The contract was up for renewal in 2015, but due to a depressed industry, wasn’t settled until 2016.

“When we were negotiating the last deal, Keetac was down a total of 19 months and United Taconite had been down a little less than a year,” said Woods.

With the industry in a downturn, steelworkers took a wage freeze over the three-year term of the last contract, said Woods.

“It was very tough bargaining,” said Woods. “We had half the industry down, for crying out loud.”

However, the domestic steel and iron ore industries are now in better health, said Rebrovich.

Steel prices have rebounded, new tariffs on unfairly traded steel imports hold hope of some relief, and the steelworkers willingness to take a wage freeze during the last negotiations, all helped the industry get back on its feet, he said.

“It’s on the rebound” said Rebrovich. “I think we’re headed in the right direction. The imports are starting to dry up, but we’re still under this temporary (tariff) stuff. The tariffs are month-by-month.”

Emil Ramirez, USW District 11 director, said the industry has bounced back.

“I honestly believe with these tariffs that have come on, it has helped the iron ore and steel industry and there are shops opening up throughout the country,” said Ramirez. “We’re probably not out of the woods yet, but the companies are making money and we are going to ask that our members be compensated and not just stay in the pockets of corporate.”

Currently, annual domestic steel production capacity is between 110-120 million tons, said Rebrovich.

At the same time, about 40 million tons of imported steel is currently coming into the United States on an annual basis, he said.

The United States is the largest importer of steel in the world, according to the International Trade Administration’s March 2018 Global Steel Trade Monitor.

In 2017, the United States received imports from 85 countries and territories. The top three import sources were Canada, Brazil and South Korea.

Nucor in 2016 was the top domestic producer of steel with 22 million tons. United States Steel was second at 14 million tons followed ArcelorMittal at 12 million tons.

Globally, 1.7 billion tons of steel was produced in 2017.

On the Iron Range, Ramirez underlined the importance of the iron ore industry and its workers.

Iron ore mines in northeastern Minnesota mines accounts for 80 percent of the “first pour,” steel in the United States, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.

The Minnesota iron ore mining industry contributes more than $3 billion to the state’s economy each year and supports more than 11,200 jobs throughout the state, according to a 2010 Bureau of Business & Economic Research study at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics.

“People have to realize that the Iron Range is critical to manufacturing production in this country,” said Ramirez. “Sometimes people forget about the Iron Range because it’s four hours north of the Twin Cities. “

With Chippewa Capital’s iron project in Nashwauk and PolyMet Mining Corp.’s copper-nickel operation on the horizon, Ramirez says the USW may have opportunities to grow its membership on the Iron Range.

Peak modern era employment in the industry was in 1978, when 16,132 miners worked at Iron Range mines.

“We’d like to see some growth (in USW members) up there,” said Ramirez. “We’re the dominant union there and hopefully the employees at those projects understand our philosophy.”

Mining jobs remain among the most sought after jobs on the Iron Range.

In 2017, hourly wage rates, including incentives, ranged from $24.08 for Labor Grade 1 to $32.40 for Labor Grade 5, according to the 2017 Annual Report of The Inspector of Mines, St. Louis County, Minnesota.

As the labor talks unfold in July, negotiations discussions will remain confidential.

The USW in May began surveying members to determine negotiation priorities.

However, retiree health care costs and wages are likely to be top issues.

“We have some problems to solve,” said Rebrovich. “But I’m optimistic we’re going to come out all right. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, but it’s a lot different than being on a slippery slope like we were in the last negotiations.”

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