On the Iron Range, a glut of heartbreak

Julia Cheng | AP

There’s really not a lot of new information in the Washington Post’s documentation today of the economic tsunami that’s wiping out the Iron Range. But the domestic economic collapse hasn’t gotten anywhere near the attention it deserves, at least from a human scale.

China stopped building ghost cities, its cheap steel is being sent to the United States where the whole “Buy American” thing doesn’t advance beyond bumper stickers. U.S. steel mills shut off the furnaces. People end up out of work in Minnesota. Behold! The global economy.

“If we are the most powerful nation in the world, why are you killing an industry?” Heather Hill, spouse of an out-of-work miner asks, wondering why the U.S. can’t protect its workers.

The Iron Range has tried to wean itself off what it does best, but nothing has taken hold so far.

This section of the Post’s story is particularly heartbreaking. The part where people have tried.

Inside Hill’s wallet are the tattered papers that were supposed to be his passport to the global economy.

There’s a laminated card proving that he completed four years of training to become a millwright journeyman, qualifying him to work on any factory floor. His certification in aviation maintenance took two years. His latest entry is his Class A truck driver’s license, which he earned after 30 hours behind the wheel and two weeks of classes at the local community college after he was laid off from the mines.

“How much more diversification can we get?” he said.

After the mines shut down, Hill searched for jobs across the range, hoping to land work before his health benefits expire this month. But his options were slim, and the chances of finding pay and benefits comparable to what he earned at United Taconite were even more remote.

It’s a human story that can’t get any traction, as the comments section proves… again. It quickly becomes a philosophical and political battle, the same one that breaks out in America day after day after day.

It took this Iron Ranger to remind us that we’re talking about people caught in a cycle they can’t control.

I am one of the Iron Range salmon who grew up in a mining family. My 8th grade educated father had the foresight to tell my brother and me…”you need to get out of here. This is not going to last forever.”

Returning to this pristine area after 40 years of business experience I understand the arguments. But I also have seen that the “company store” mentality still prevails up here. There is very little sense of entrepreneurship…risk taking up here. Why should there have been.

The mining companies of the past provided. Come up here and see what the legacy mining companies built for the residents. Beautiful schools with auditoriums and indoor swimming pools. The companies needed incentives to draw workers from Europe and they succeeded in creating communities with civic pride.

Now it’s a different story because there are no more U.S. legacy companies providing for the cities and its residents. If you’re young and believe in this Faustian pact with the multi nationals, you’re going to wait a long time for this to come back. Rep. Anzelc is absolutely right.

The recovery will mirror the recovery of the financial crisis…a very slow upward trend.

FINALLY there’s been an economic non mining centric epiphany up here..”We need to determine our own future with economic diversity. If the mining comes back it should only be the icing on the cake…and not the entire cake.” That’s a big order for this area and it present mentality, but we are smart, resilient and can make the turn but it’ll take more time and some young people, like Dan Hill, just can’t wait.

In its editorial today, the Duluth News Tribune calls the local response to the disaster “heartless.”

Because, rather than, “Minnesotans are in trouble through no fault of their own,” and, “We can help, so let’s do that,” politics in all its ugliness broke out. Dayton and legislative leaders started tacking on other issues to take on in a special session, including pipelines and metals mining.

They seemed to be pushing each other to see what else they could get out of the opportunity. Did any of them really think that in a one-day special session they’d also be able to figure out federal Real ID requirements that had been eluding them for a decade or that they’d be able to fix complicated racial and income disparities that were generations in the making?

So often forgotten during long weeks and months of very un-Minnesotan “negotiations” were the laid-off miners and their families and their very real need.