Iron Range fired up

HIBBING, Minn. — The 2004 presidential election is “historically far more important than any other … in my lifetime,” Steelworkers District 11 Director David Foster told a get-out-the-vote training session in the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range Oct. 2. To find another turning point “so fundamental to the future of our country,” he said, you have to go back “to my parents’ time, the 1930s.”

It demands a “new level of participation, different from what we might have done 10 or 20 years ago,” Foster said.

He was addressing 25 Iron Rangers gathered at the Memorial Building here for a day of training and door-knocking organized by Wellstone Action, America Coming Together (ACT) and the Steelworkers.

Neighbors talking to neighbors are “the fundamental building block in how people’s decisions are made,” Foster said. “We built our unions on the basis of this kind of politics, this kind of approach to organizing. Working under extraordinarily difficult conditions — blacklisting, brutal suppression — the work was done in people’s kitchens, winning converts one by one.”

Sen. Paul Wellstone, revered by working class Minnesotans, was killed two years ago in a plane crash near here in the final weeks of his campaign for a third term. Modeled on his people-to-people campaigns, sessions like this one are training and activating ordinary people, like public health nurse Connie Vidmar and social service worker Nancy Melin, who said they had never door-knocked before.

Melin told the group that in her work she meets people “who are directly affected by national policies but do not vote.” She said she wanted to “learn how to motivate some of those people.” Vidmar said, “I see selfishness taking over the country. We can’t leave it to the next person” to do something about it.

Tough struggle is nothing new on the Iron Range, where memories of steel company intimidation and terror are still fresh. “There’s a reason for unions,” Vidmar said. “Our kids don’t remember the baseball bats,” she added, referring to attacks on union organizers by company thugs.

The Iron Range is marked by red ridges, formed from earth dumped out of the open mines that dot the area. Iron ore brought people and jobs to this region, but the steel companies ravaged the landscape and fought the unions tooth-and-nail. Now, companies are throwing workers and retirees on the scrap heap. In the last four years, 11,000 steelworker jobs have disappeared in District 11, which stretches from Minnesota to Washington State.

Jerry Fallos worked at LTV’s nearby Hoyt Lakes mine for 35 years. He was president of USWA Local 4108, with 1,400 employees and 3,000 retirees.

“Out of the clear blue,” LTV closed the mine three years ago, giving only two months’ notice. Workers lost their health care, and retirees had their pensions slashed. Some found jobs in other mines, but many of those closed down too. Now many are working at $8/hour jobs.

“Basically they work to pay for health insurance,” Fallos told the World. “It’s sad to see a 50-year-old competing with high school kids to carry out groceries at the supermarket.”

Fallos is now coordinator for the USWA Associate Member Program, which is organizing laid-off steelworkers and also throwing its doors open to anyone in the community, offering workplace rights assistance and involvement in grassroots political action.

Charlie Olson, Labor 2004 coordinator for the Iron Range, is organizing phone banks, worksite flyering, and late afternoon door-knocks. He is a member of USWA 2705, on leave from his job as maintenance mechanic at Hibbing Taconite, where he’s worked for 29 years.

At 59, retirement is on Olson’s mind. Sitting in the Chisholm USWA office as early October snowflakes drifted down outside, he said the biggest issue for retirees is reform of corporate bankruptcy rules, “so these companies can’t steal their pensions.” Steel companies buy and sell each other, then file for bankruptcy, with “no responsibility” for workers and retirees. “When ore runs out at Hibbing Taconite, they’ll just shut down,” he said bitterly. “Corporate America doesn’t care.”

Referring to the GOP focus on “values” issues like abortion, Olson said, “This area is one of the most conservative areas in the country. But they vote Democratic overwhelmingly. They do that because they believe in taking care of our fellow man.”

“We need more than Kerry elected,” he said. “We need to change the makeup of Congress so they’re more worker-friendly.”

Foster told the World he believes this election is fundamentally about Bush’s desire to “turn back in a grotesque direction … becoming global policemen for a [pro-corporate] global economy.” At issue is “how the organization of the global economy is going to take place. We have the opportunity to bend back in the direction of humanity.”

“Our forefathers at the turn of the century fought the robber barons,” Foster told the Hibbing gathering. “They won fundamental reforms that created civil society in the 20th century.” Today, he said, a similar struggle is needed “with an urgency as never before.”

The author can be reached at suewebb@pww.org.