Heidi: It is time for Making Sausage on the Thursday Morning Show. It is where we look at the messy business of politics. I'm Heidi Holtan and joining me now is Aaron Brown, a frequent contributor to KAXE/KBXE.
He is the liberal arm of Dig Deep. He's lived his life on the Iron Range. He's an author, blogger, podcaster, Great Northern Radio Show host and instructor at Hibbing Community College.
Well Aaron, last Friday, both President Trump and vice President Biden visited Northern Minnesota and they a big part of both of their speeches were talking about jobs on the Iron Range.
First of all, why is the Iron Range important? Why do they even come here?
Aaron: Well, both of them were there on the same day, both with the intent of winning Minnesota, 10 electoral votes in the upcoming election. The Democrats have carried Minnesota every year since 1972. So it's got the reputation of being a blue state, but it's often close and the last election was very close.
And so President Trump believes he can pick up the state in which would give him some breathing room in a very close contest in a number of states around the country. And if he wins Minnesota, he'd have a really strong chance of winning reelection.
They're both in Northern Minnesota because of this. I would say the symbolism of the Mesabi Iron Range, the notion that this blue collar region of iron mining communities in Northern Minnesota that had even 10 years ago been 70% (ish) percent Democratic loyal to the DFL for 60 to 70 years.
The notion is that this area has been shifting towards Republicans, especially towards President Trump. That was evident in 2016 when places like Hibbing and certain Range towns flipped to the Republican column for the first time since Herbert Hoover. So quite a long time.
A lot of attention was paid to the Iron Range in both of their speeches. However, neither speech occurred on the Iron Range. Joe Biden was near Duluth in Hermantown at a union training center and President Trump was at the Bemidji airport West of the Iron Range, both of them talking about the Iron Range, but neither of them actually going there. That illustrates some of the challenges of the national media in understanding this race and understanding why, for instance, President Trump likes to talk about the Iron Range, where he has done a little better than Democrats ever had in recent memory.
It is a symbol of something is bigger than perhaps the reality. The reality is that Iron Range is relatively a small place, fewer than a hundred thousand live on what we would call the Iron Range. It is in a state where increased numbers of people live in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and in the suburbs and where the population has continued to shift toward the Metro area away from rural Minnesota. Part of the reason why people in rural Minnesota are reacting so strongly towards President Trump and against the Democratic party is the perception that the power has shifted to the Democratic base in the twin cities away from rural areas . In rural areas Republicans are offering a message that's really appealing: stick it to the Twin Cities. That’s kind of what Donald Trump did in his address and why he thinks the Iron Range is so important. Unfortunately for him and for us on the Iron Range, we're not as powerful as we used to be in and might lack the ability to actually switch to flip the selection one way or the other.
Heidi: So they were both talking about jobs. Vice President Biden was at that at union hall, President Trump, I don't know if this is verbatim, but he said, you know, the Range was dead. I brought back the jobs.
Aaron: Yes, that is the comments that you've heard. Where it came from was a letter written and signed by a number of mayors of Iron Range towns, supporters of President Trump who endorsed him. Many of them had already endorsed him four years ago, but they re-endorsed. The Range economy was in a terrible place. They said that Presidents Trump's actions, particularly as they relate to trade - infused the region with economic strength and came roaring back to life (I think was the actual language used). Unfortunately, again, that isn’t quite the reality. I understand some people support the President. I'm just saying that the reality of the Iron Range is that very little has changed on the Range in not only the last 4years, but in the last 20, generally speaking, we've been losing jobs.
It is not just as mines are closing because of environmentalists or any of those sorts of things, but because of automation and because of efficiencies and consolidations in large industries like mining. Logging has gone through a similar process where automation and different techniques are reducing the number of actual people who are employed in the industry. So the industry still goes on, but the number of people required to run is less, and that has an economic impact. That doesn't get better just because you put tariffs on some forms of Chinese steel. In fact, what happened in the first two years of, of President Trump's term, you could argue was very good for the mines in that steel prices went way up amid the tariffs, US Steel and others that had been struggling. Cleveland Cliffs, other mining that are prominent on the Mesabi Range had wonderful years.
They did very well, not only in sales and demand for their products, but in dividends for their investors. It was a very profitable 2 1/2 through President Trump's term, until there were some signs of a slowdown as those prices got to be too high for manufacturing, and there was some back and forth there. Then COVID-19 hit and demand dropped to nothing for a short time. And then logistical issues. The car manufacturers shut down all the auto plants in Detroit and things like that happened. They shut down the mines in response to that for a period of time. RIght now under the six Iron Range, taconite mines only 5 have resumed operations and that 6th Keewatin Taconite, I mean, it's not down for the count, but we're not getting any sign of it reopening yet.
We haven't heard about anything of the sort it's a US Steel property. US Steel has MinnTac, which is the biggest mine, and they're getting what they need out of MinnTac right now. I understand it is in need of some repairs and has some, some plant issues that they need to work on. And right now it's not operational. If anything, the Range is just slightly worse off than it was 4 years ago. And that reality is not reflected in any of the rhetoric, but reality is not part of the rhetoric. That is the theme of the 2020 election. It is a dueling reality, one with a foot in reality and the other in space. This is kind of what it feels like.
Heidi: So the corporations that own the mines did well, were there more jobs?
Aaron: Over time? The reality is an iron mining job is a great job. I know many iron miners and they are professional. They are intelligent. They are well trained and far less numerous than iron miners in my fathers and grandfathers times. That is because of technology and the jobs are great. But what happens when there's really high demand for iron, unless you're going to open another line at a plant, which is a multi hundred million dollar operation? You're not going to hire a lot of new people. What you're going to do is run your people a little bit harder. And the overtime part of their contract is great. So people who might've made $80,000 a year might be pulling down in the low $100,000, you know, $125,000 a year with a lot of overtime. That's good living in Northern Minnesota. That's a second home, that's a cabin. That’s the nicest new truck you can buy off the lot. It is a good life for people, which is why there's such a strong desire to preserve, protect, and enhance, and try to extend mining jobs, because there are these great jobs and there's really nothing like them in our economy currently, which I understand. But on the flip side it is a fixed element. They are resource tied to the ground and tied to the national economy in such a way as they go away periodically. Sometimes they shut down for weeks or months. Then of course, we're in a business where eventually these mines close, and that has been the story of the Range. And we've watched this kind of circled down as these jobs get boiled down, they get better and better, but there's fewer and fewer of them.
As the mechanic would say, that is your problem with the Range economy.
Unfortunately, I keep saying that because I, maybe I'm just tired of talking about it, but nobody seems to want to address economic diversity because it's unknown, it's uncertain and you have to make something from nothing which is hard work and will include some failure. Wheareas adding 20 mining jobs or in the case of Polymet or Twin Metals, these proposed non-ferrous mines, adding a few hundred mining jobs seems like the only way you can go forward.
So what the political process has done is boiled it all down to those few mining jobs as being the only way out of our current economic state. And when you boil it down to something that's a flip of a switch yes or no, you bring in polarization: either you're for it or you're against it.
That is where the Range is right now in terms of politics and those attached to the mining industry. Have I tended to view it as a zero sum game. Either you support a Democrat who is locked step with Republicans on environmental issues, or you just go for the whole thing, go for the Republicans because they never have to modulate their message on the environment. That’s where a lot of those voters are going. There's a number of them.
President Trump will probably do as well as he did in 2016 or better on the Range. But it doesn't necessarily mean Minnesota is gonna flip red because a lot of other people, especially in the suburbs, don't respond to the President's messaging on this or many other issues. The polling shows a consistent lead for by former vice President Biden. I understand that that is not reality necessarily.
It's just a snapshot in time, but it would be surprising to me that that Minnesota would sneak red. All of a sudden, while States around us stay blue or go blue. In all reality, if President Trump wins Minnesota, he's probably won Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and Florida and a bunch of other States, and he's on his way to reelection. But the polls don't show that right now. And the coverage doesn't really reflect where the people are and the different messages that are out there that it's not just all of the Range voted for Trump in 2016. Everything's changed with this guy. He changed the world – that’s the belief that I think is out there. That is a little frustrating to watch because it's going over people's heads locally. I just worry that it'll leave the Range Disappointed whether Trump wins or Biden wins. The Range has problems. We'll be right there waiting for it, come December and next year. And the reality is that resentments and temporary trade measures will not solve those problems.
Heidi: And besides Northern Minnesota doesn't is not just the Range either. Like you said, they were in Hermantown and in Bemidji….
Aaron: No Ranger would, would say that. Even people in Bemidji and Hermantown would argue with you that no, we're not the Range. That just shows the lack of nuance – a lack of understanding of Minnesota and greater Minnesota. When you go to Bemidji or when you go to Duluth or when you're in Brainerd, or when you're in Chisago County or in Hibbing or Virginia or Eveleth or Ely, you are in very different places and they have different things going on and they have different cultures and they have different people that make up the coalition of people who make their community. While there are a lot of similarities and connections of course because Minnesota is Minnesota.
We can relate on many things, These campaigns come in and it's the Range and it's mining. When in fact there's just a few thousand mining jobs. It's not the biggest thing here. Healthcare is far bigger and probably touches people people's lives a lot more, but it's really hard to get this election focused on an issue like healthcare or childcare or other issues that are affecting people's lives in rural Minnesota. It’s because of the symbolic value of the big trucks and the helmets and the hard hats and the, the lamps on the helmets. This is what people think of when they think of the Northern Minnesota. So the national news, I've been on a few shows where they show Northern Minnesota and they say, yes, the Iron Range is Duluth and international falls in the Iron Range County of Koochiching County. That’s not the Range.
Heidi: Vice President Biden was ina union hall, but he was talking to carpenters. It wasn’t miners - , but it in the national media, it looked like that. Of course.
Before we go - it seems to me when the issue of copper nickel mining comes up, aside from anything, environmental there are questions there. How long it would be a good business. What the market is like, whether there's investors, that kind of thing. But what you hear is that if copper nickel mining opens up, it's going to be like the old days of the Range.
Aaron: The old days of the Range - they are generally referring to the 60s and which is the prime of today's old men. That was a time when you hear stories about “Hoyt Lakes and shift change, at 3 o'clock, this town was packed with cars, leaving the plant. They all stop at the bars and the drug stores. And it was a glorious time to be alive. And I had hair and all of this other stuff” The thing of it is Erie Mining, the old Hoyt lakes, LTV, you know, when it was Erie, it had more than a thousand people working there. The reality is Polymet, which wants to open a plant in the old LTV - the old Erie plant would only have a quarter or less 20% of that many people working in it.
Memories are biased. When we felt good about things, we weren't worried about the things we're worried about now. So it felt like that was really good. But wages were lower. Women were having a difficult time getting into the workforce on the Range. It was a different time and you can't replicate that - economically you can't replicate it. We do pay more attention to environmental issues now, and those environmental regulations are far more present in the conversation than they were back then. But the reality is this is an economic question as to whether or not these mines open. It is the environment is part of the economic equation and that it costs money to mitigate threats to the environment. But really this is economic.
And so, you know, Erie was mining some pretty good taconite back in the day. The reason they're not anymore is because the best of the ore is gone and what's left is not as good. The thing about copper nickel is their mining, or that they've been exploring for 80- 90 years, that has never been good enough to mine, but now they feel that the technology's caught up, that they can crush and access, or that, that previously would not have been feasible. But the life of the mine will be short because the best or we'll go quickly. Case in point what they did with Magnetation in Itasca County, they had a new way of accessing old ore supplies. And within a year or two, and ask anybody who worked there, they pulled out the very best of the, or, and they were making money and it was going pretty good.
And then it wasn't as good and it got more expensive and it got more difficult. The business model didn't hold up. And that's unfortunately the most likely outcome of a Polymet or a Twin Metals. I won't even talk about Twin Metals cause they've got, I don't even know that they have a plan that will work, but Polymet might have a plan that works, but it will only work for a while.
I get frustrated because it goes on like this for 20 years. If all of this is about the the good old days - my good old days was a time before Polymet was a part of our conversation. Now my kids are in high school, I have gray hair, and we are still talking about a mine that does not exist.
Heidi: What we hear talked about is the workers and more jobs and really – aren’t large corporations the ones making the money?
Aaron: It's funny, cause I'm doing this research and I do the old research into old Hibbing and they were well aware of US Steel's role in extracting big profits out of the Iron Range. It was a big part of the local political conversation, - all about jobs and the environment. And, the environments are gonna take our jobs away.
What the Trump administration really did was make a huge amount of money for US Steel and Cleveland cliffs and Arcelor Mittal. While some of that money got down to the workers and, and they bought trucks and things and bought things in the community that did help the community. We got a low end of the deal in terms of raw dollars. This is the same with, with non-ferrous is unless you're capturing some of that one time money.
And I don't mean just some but enough to really pay for the environmental effects for the economic effects. When the mine closes, you are really just playing with time. Very frustrating. Shortsighted. We're going to get hosed. That is the Canadian truth.
Heidi: That's Aaron Brown. You can read email@example.com and hear him on Dig Deep and his new podcast and a book. Congratulations on your book deal for Power in the Wilderness. So Aaron, thanks so much I know you're busy. We'll chat again soon.
Aaron: Sounds good.