Minnesota’s Iron Range is actually three distinct areas: the Vermillion Range, the Mesabi Range, and the Cuyuna Range. The Mississippi River skirts around the edge of two of those: the Mesabi and Cuyuna Ranges.
The Merritt brothers discovered iron ore on the Mesabi Range in 1890 (near the city of Mountain Iron), and within a short time mining created a boom economy. The first iron ore mine opened in 1892, and just 20 years later there were 150 operating mines. The industry did very well in the early years because the iron ore required little processing and was close to the surface, so it was cheap to extract. The mines were near major transportation routes (the harbor of Duluth was a short distance away by rail), and they had a vast resource of cheap labor as thousands of immigrants poured into the area (70% were from Finland, Sweden, Slovenia, and Croatia).
From 1900 to 1980, 60% of the US supply of iron ore came from the Mesabi Range. Much of the steel that fueled our war machine during World War II was produced from Minnesota iron ore. Iron ore production peaked during the war years, then gradually declined until the supply of high grade iron ore was essentially depleted by the 1960s.
In the 1970s a new process was employed that made it economical to process rock with a lower percentage of iron ore like taconite, which usually has a 15-35% iron ore content.. While high grade iron ore could just be dug out and shipped directly to steel mills, taconite has to go through several steps to make it mill-ready. After it was removed from the ground, the material has to be crushed, ground, screened, and baked to turn it into pellets that are about 67% iron. These pellets are then shipped to the steel mills.
Work in the mines has never been easy, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Iron Range has seen some major battles between management and labor. At the end of July 1907, thousands of miners went on strike at the Oliver Iron Mining Company (a subsidiary of US Steel), but the effort failed to win any concessions largely because there was a sufficient supply of new immigrants ready to work who were hired, even if many of those new immigrants were brought in by the company from east coast ports right after arriving in the US. By 1908, Oliver Mining dominated the range, controlling nearly three-quarters of the ore resources.
In the decade after the strike, over 700 men died in the mines, many of them new immigrants. Even though the work day had been reduced to eight hours from ten in 1912, management made it clear that they expected miners to produce the same amount. Most miners were paid a contract rate that was akin to a piece-rate; the more ore they dug out, the more they got paid, regardless of the number of hours worked. A typical contract worker in 1916 earned around $3 a day, which was a little higher than workers at open pit mines who were not on the contract system. The system was rife with abuse, though, as the rates were determined by mining captains who often demanded bribes for working prime spots and, at the end of the day, workers were charged for the supplies they used, things like fuses and blasting caps. Oliver Mining vigorously opposed formation of unions and hired spies to monitor its workers; anyone suspected of trying to organize was fired.
As discontent with the pay system grew in 1916, scattered strikes broke out, many led by men from the group of new immigrants hired in 1906. Mainstream labor organization weren’t willing to help, so the workers turned to the more radical Industrial Workers of the World, who were eager to assist. The IWW helped organize a widespread strike of thousands of miners and drew up a list of demands that included better pay, abolishing the contract system, and ending 4-hour shifts on Saturdays.
Striking miners survived for a while on funds from the IWW, but many also had to go out west and work in seasonal harvesting to support their families. Because of World War I, the company couldn’t rely on a supply of new immigrants to break the strike, so they instead worked with local authorities to slow down the union leadership by arresting and charging them with trumped-up violations. The company also hired a large network of security forces, that, with the blessing of the Governor, were deputized in St. Louis County. Those forces were later implicated in the escalation of violence (four people were killed during the strike) that at the time was blamed on the IWW and striking miners.
After 3½ months the strike ended, largely because of financial pressures on the striking miners as IWW funds dried up and seasonal work out west ended. Many returned to work in the mines. Within a month of the end of the strike, Oliver raised wages 15-20% and adopted many of the reforms sought by the union; although contract work wasn’t ended, more oversight and protections for workers were added. Oliver continued to fight union organizing and managed to keep them out of the mines until 1943.
While folks on the Iron Range have a long history of pro-union politics, many are also socially conservative. When the mines began hiring women in the 1970s, the new employees were subjected to daily harassment and humiliation from male coworkers; management didn’t intervene, implying that the female workers brought it on themselves. A successful class action lawsuit was settled against Eveleth Mines in the late 1990s (Jensen v. Eveleth Taconite Company), setting a landmark for future sexual harassment claims.
Even with an increase in tourism-related jobs, the mines are still a reliable employer, although the number of jobs is much less than it once was. While those new jobs in the service sector often pay minimum wage or just above, a job in the mines will typically pay 2-3 times as much.