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Dayton heads to Iron Range as layoff concerns loom

Gov. Mark Dayton on Saturday will become the latest high-profile policymaker to visit the Iron Range after United States Steel Corp. said it would further scale back its Minnesota operations, stoking worries about the region’s economic future.

The governor’s office confirmed he plans to address union workers and hear their concerns after Tuesday’s notice that Pennsylvania-based U.S. Steel will lay off 680 more workers when it partially shutters its Minntac mine in June, nearly halving the Mountain Iron facility’s workforce.

Minntac’s shakeup comes after U.S. Steel announced last month it will cut more than 400 Iron Range jobs by idling its Keetac mine, in Keewatin, in May. Combined, that’s nearly 1,100 layoffs.

U.S. Steel has said the layoffs are temporary but has not given a timetable for restoring operations.

In the meantime, representatives from United Steel Workers of America Local 1938, a union with laid-off workers, met with Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and other lawmakers earlier in the week to begin mapping out the state’s near-term support plan, USW Local 1938 President Jon Malek said in a Thursday letter to workers.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development confirmed it is on site, hoping to minimize fallout for the Iron Range by directing affected workers — including members of United Steel Workers of America Local 2660 — to job training programs and unemployment benefits.

Still, state and federal officials have warned the problems already roiling the Iron Range’s mining economy could grow deeper and last longer without significant intervention to safeguard jobs and domestic iron ore production.

Union leaders on Friday declined to comment on their expectations for Saturday’s meeting but noted strong support from within the state this week. Though Malek and others have also met with federal lawmakers in recent days, the U.S. government’s role in relieving the Iron Range and its workers remains unclear.

The U.S. iron ore industry, anchored in northern Minnesota, has come into sharper focus as a more globalized marketplace gradually reconfigures how it and other well-established steel markets fit into the broader picture.

Slowing demand from China and a worldwide supply glut recently dragged iron ore prices to their lowest levels in a decade, below $50 per metric ton, and industry watchers caution they could slip even more. Sinking prices have squeezed many of the world’s steel giants, whose production costs in many cases outstrip the commodity’s going rate.

In addition, controversial competition from foreign steel producers has bitten deep into U.S. companies’ bottom lines. U.S. Steel has blamed its troubles in part on foreign producers setting their prices for stateside buyers below the cost of production, a practice known as “dumping” that has upended the marketplace and drawn sharp criticism from trade groups and policymakers.

Uncertainty over how long the mine shutdowns will last and impatience for federal action on cut-rate steel imports are feeding into tension over Iron Range’s long-term outlook, said Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.

“There isn’t a strong history of the federal government doing much about dumping until there’s been so much damage that it’s almost too late,” he said Friday. “That’s the concern.”

Dayton and Lt. Gov. Smith along with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, all Democrats, sent a letter to President Barack Obama on Wednesday urging federal action to shore up Minnesota’s iron ore industry.

“These indefinite plant closures and the attendant economic uncertainty they cause are harmful and heartbreaking for our constituents who live on Minnesota’s Iron Range,” they wrote, saying stronger anti-dumping enforcement is needed to protect the state’s steel workers.

Obama administration officials said in meetings last week they would explore a tougher stance on dumping and pursue full federal benefits for laid-off Iron Range workers and their families, Franken said in a news release. The federal government has yet to announce specific action.

About Karlee Weinmann

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