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Hardship hits the Iron Range

VIRGINIA -- On color-coded spreadsheets that displayed the names of about 350 laid-off Minntac workers Friday, the ones marked in orange were those of older union members who took voluntary layoffs so that younger members could continue working.

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Kori Sherwood of Virginia picks up her daughter Isabelle Meskill, 6, from school Friday. Sherwood, a single mother, was recently laid off from her job as a millwright at Minntac. She said she is trying to cut spending as much as she can. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com
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VIRGINIA - On color-coded spreadsheets that displayed the names of about 350 laid-off Minntac workers Friday, the ones marked in orange were those of older union members who took voluntary layoffs so that younger members could continue working.

About 200 of the names were highlighted in orange.

"God bless them," United Steelworkers Local 1938 Vice President John Arbogast said as he reviewed the list at the union hall. "It's the right thing to do."

Inside the Local 1938 headquarters on the 400 block of First Street North, leadership said it was hoping to get its people back to work by Oct. 1.

Between now and then, Local 1938 President Lowell Carlon and Arbogast figure to spend much of the summer in Pittsburgh, home to U.S. Steel headquarters, where the union duo will be negotiating a new contract to replace the union's expiring three-year deal.

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The glut of foreign steel on the U.S. market has thwarted demand for Minnesota taconite iron ore, sent state and federal politicians scrambling for answers and brought sudden change to labor and even management forces across the Iron Range.

The numbers of people affected are intentionally vague, as the corporations, say Carlon and Arbogast, don't like to give out figures. But the dominoes have fallen quickly since "idling" became the buzzword of 2015.

Two weeks ago, an estimated 225 laid-off workers from U.S. Steel's Keetac mine in Keewatin filed for unemployment. Last week, about 200 workers at the Mesabi Nugget iron plant near Aurora and Mining Resources iron concentrate plant near Chisholm learned from parent company Steel Dynamics Inc. that the facilities will stay idle for at least two years. Earlier in May, about 100 salaried positions at Cliffs Natural Resources facilities throughout Northeastern Minnesota were eliminated.

Today, the roughly 350 Minntac workers laid off from U.S. Steel's mine in Mountain Iron will sign up en masse for unemployment at Mesabi Range College. U.S. Steel is idling part - though for now not all - of its production at Minntac.

"This whole issue with the steel industry seems to be mushrooming," Chisholm Mayor Mike Jugovich said. "But we've been through this before and this will happen again. We will make it through; it's who we are."

Saying 'no'

Kori Sherwood of Virginia is a 29-year-old single mother with two years of employment at Minntac. Her last day of work for the foreseeable future was Tuesday. A hybrid worker, Sherwood is part millwright, part operations. Sometimes she turns wrenches on maintenance projects; sometimes she operates the agglomerator; sometimes she loads train cars with iron ore pellets.

A month ago, she was with her mother in Two Harbors at the ore docks there.

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"Those are some of my pellets," she recalled telling her mom proudly.

Sherwood explained that she works on an 11-person crew. They work hard together; they golf together. When gathered into a room together at the mine on May 18, a number of them were singled out by name and told their hours were being cut down from their regular toggling pay periods of 96 and 72 hours. Sherwood wasn't named or told anything. It meant she was being laid off.

"This will be tough for the next few months," she said. "You cut spending as much as you can."

She's already caught herself saying "no" more often than not to her precocious kindergartner, Isabelle, an antsy sort who likes to read and climb on her mother. Isabelle's father also works in a mine on the Iron Range.

Sherwood admitted to feeling lost without work. An Ely native, she'd spent her 20s cycling through jobs as a travel agent, a bartender, a gas station attendant. After schooling at Mesabi Range College, she entered the mines and found her life transformed. Suddenly, she could afford a new Chevy pickup truck. She bought a home on a quiet lane lined with mature trees.

Now, she's deferring her student loans and tapping into the unemployment insurance on her Union Plus mortgage. She might even let her hair dye fade out.

"You finally think you get your life in order - buy a truck, buy a home," she said, "and it all falls apart."

Securing health insurance

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Sherwood is fortunate in one respect: she gets health insurance for the next six months.

Some laid-off Minntac employees with less than two years experience were scrambling Thursday. That night, about 20 laid-off employees were in and out of the union hall, enrolling in MNsure so they could avoid going all of June without health insurance. There was one man with five children needing assistance from late-working insurance navigators, who union leaders praised for their concern and involvement.

State Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, said more than 60 Minntac and 30 Keetac workers faced the loss of their health insurance. About a third of the Minntac workers were able to join their spouses' insurance.

Metsa was in the Local 1938 union hall Friday, following up with how the enrollments went.

"Mostly what's driving all of us is, we want to see programs work for taxpayers who paid into them," Metsa said of himself and fellow lawmakers, several of whom have spoken out about the need to protect against the illegal dumping of foreign steel. "It's times like this, when it's tough, that we need to make sure people who need programs know about them and get them."

Even as the swirl of hardship and bad news swept across the Iron Range, life moved on.

At Virginia High School, Principal Laverne Hakly said on the phone last week that it was business as usual as the end of school neared. Graduation is Thursday.

"We're not in panic mode yet," Hakly said.

People who work the mines and in mining's myriad supporting businesses live life at a lower key, she said.

"The majority of people don't have half-million dollar homes," she said. "I've been on the Range all my life. We ride it out. You plan. It's like being a farmer. It's something that happens."

Outside her modest, well-kept home, Sherwood showed off her garden plot - rich, black dirt boxed in by two-by-eights. It's where she'll plant cauliflower, squash and zucchini.

As a light rain fell, Sherwood talked about her daughter's year-end program last week. The kindergartners were asked what they'd like to be when they grow up.

Isabelle told the class she wanted to be a miner. Like her mother.

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