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Will big mining do better this time around?

Many people I met in mining towns around Lake Superior while filming "1913 Massacre" urged me to see the positive contributions the mining companies had made to the region. Some insisted that the Woody Guthrie song that introduced me to the story of the Italian Hall disaster and brought me and by co-producer Ken Ross to Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the first place had gotten it all wrong. The greedy bosses, company thugs and violent social strife that Woody sang about in “1913 Massacre” did not fit the story they knew. “We all got along just fine,” they protested.

When the mines were running, the towns thrived. The big department stores downtown were open. The churches (and the bars) were packed to capacity. Everybody worked hard and the work was sometimes dangerous, but on Saturday nights, the streets were jammed and the atmosphere festive. The company put a roof over your head then sold you the house at terms you could manage. The copper bosses built libraries, sidewalks and schools, gave land grants for churches, and even furnished luxuries like bathhouses and public swimming pools. The men who ran the mines weren’t just robber barons from Boston; they were public benefactors. 

But their benevolence had its limits. The mining captains regarded the immigrant workers — Finns, Slavs, Italians — as charges placed in their paternal care. They knew what was best for these new arrivals. They discouraged organizing. Faced with strikes on the Iron Range in 1907 or on the Keweenaw in 1913, they adamantly refused to negotiate, brought in scabs to do the work and Waddell and Pinkerton men to deal (often brutally) with the strikers. Even after the tragic events of 1913, Calumet and Hecla Mining Company would not recognize the union for decades.

The Keweenaw miners were on strike again in 1968 when C & H made a calculated business decision to pull out. No more jobs, pensions cut short; the good times were over. They left the waters poisoned and the landscape littered with industrial wreckage and toxic mine tailings.

Promising to do better

The companies driving the new mining boom around Lake Superior these days promise to do better. They are dedicated to corporate social responsibility. They practice ”sustainable” mining, tout their environmental stewardship and declare their respect for human rights. They have community outreach programs and promise to make substantial, long-term investments in the economic development of the regions where they come to mine. They work closely – some would say too closely – with regulators to create environmental impact statements and plan for responsible closure of their mines. They are eager to gain social license.

For the most part, these big multinationals operate with the support of organized labor and politicians who want to create jobs — and what politician doesn’t want to do that? But the high-paying, highly technical mining jobs are unlikely to go to local residents, and the new mining is likely to have detrimental effects on local economies, as the economist Thomas M. Power has shown in studies of Michigan and Minnesota. Mining may provide some short-term jobs, but it can also drive away creative professionals and knowledge workers, destroy entrepreneurial culture, diminish quality of life and damage long-term economic vitality.

So promises of good times and plentiful jobs need to be treated with circumspection. PolyMet has repeatedly scaled back its job predictions for its huge, open-pit sulfide mining project near Hoyt Lakes, Minn., and the company’s own figures suggest that only 90 of the promised 360 jobs  just 25 percent — will go to local communities.

Local is, moreover, a relative term. Mine workers today tend not to live in mining towns; they will commute an hour or more to work. And hiring will always be subject to swings in metals prices, which are now dependent on two new factors: continued Chinese growth (and urbanization) and the entry of big financial firms into metals warehousing and trading.

Limits to benevolence

There are limits to big mining’s benevolence as well. The last time I flew into Marquette airport, a glossy Rio Tinto poster advertised the company’s commitment to “build, operate and close Eagle Mine responsibly.” Nobody had bothered to take the sign down after Rio Tinto had done an about-face and sold Eagle, a few months earlier, to Vancouver-based Lundin Mining for dimes on the dollar. Rio Tinto’s commitments lasted only until it was time to flip their property; overnight, Eagle Mine had become a “non-core asset” and the surrounding community none of Rio Tinto’s responsibility.

In Wisconsin, Gogebic Taconite has drawn the line between company and community much more starkly, with help from a paramilitary firm called Bulletproof Securities. Black-masked guards, dressed in camouflage and armed with semi-automatic weapons, protect the mining company’s property from trespassers and environmental protesters. Imagine what they might do in the event of a strike.

Louis V. Galdieri wrote, co-produced and co-directed the documentary film 1913 Massacre. Showtimes for the Labor Day broadcast premiere on Twin Cities Public Television are listed at tpt.org.

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If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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Comments (4)

Very touching for a touchy subject

The video was very moving. The structural fabric of our country was built upon the backs of the immigrants. The big money has always left the mining towns, even the country. Mining has left many scars behind.

i will watch .....

and cry while thinking about fast food workers action.

If A Human Life Is Only Worth

What the laws of "supply and demand" coupled with "maximizing shareholder value (and executive compensation) take to be the case,...

we are already well down the path which leads to the economic equivalent of slavery for the middle and lowers classes, worldwide.

The day is approaching when advancing technology ensures that we will no longer need the majority of the world's available laborers go to a job daily to accomplish all the "work" that needs to be done.

How, then, will divide up the proceeds produced by the world's economy when it no longer makes sense (which it already scarcely does) to base that division on the "jobs" people hold,...

if, indeed, levels of compensation ever actually had even the slightest correlation to the societal value of the work being performed)?

How do we prevent those arranging for these renewed Lake Superior basin mining activities from being conducted based on the attitude so common among those running our economy and business enterprises these days, "The future doesn't matter. I won't be there." ?

Will Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan charge extraction taxes sufficient to enrich their state's coffers in the same way Texas did (and Alaska still does) with oil, or are our mineral resources free for the taking to anyone who promises a few jobs for a few years,...

all enforced, as in days of old, with hired goon squads who make sure nobody gets in the way of the exploitation of workers and the natural world, all for purpose of padding the pockets of a few well connected owners and politicians (and done with the acquiescence of a few desperate labor leaders)?

Of course not

Nothing will change. The land will be trashed, the worker given as little as possible, the wealth will defy gravity and we'll be left with something sucked dry and spat out, with a warm smile of course.