For the last 30 years we have led District #11 of the United Steelworkers union (USW) in the northwestern quarter of the country, based here in Minnesota. To quote a frequent insurance TV ad, “We know a thing or two about mining because we’ve seen a thing or two.”
The USW, representing workers in both the U.S. and Canada, is the largest union representing miners in North America. Over the years, we’ve represented workers in iron ore in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Wyoming. We’ve also represented workers in copper, gold, silver, lead, trona, potash, uranium, salt, limestone, rare earth minerals, platinum, and, in Canada, metallurgical coal and asbestos.
We’ve also been the union, that, since our formation in 1941, has spoken out on environmental issues, the human health effects of toxic exposures in the workplace and our communities, and workers’ rights. In 1948, the infamous Donora Incident, caused by a temperature inversion that trapped fumes from a zinc smelter in the Mon Valley, killed 20 people and sent thousands to the hospital. That was our community, and it led our union to convene the first anti-air-pollution conference in the country, ultimately leading to passage of the Clean Air Act, which we supported.
In 1990 we issued a groundbreaking report at our 1990 convention, “Our Children’s World,” which identified climate change as the most important environmental issue facing our generation, long before most environmental organizations recognized its singular importance. In 2006, we updated that report, publishing “Securing Our Children’s World,” and called on the labor movement to join with the environmental movement to create a new partnership, saying that “it isn’t a choice between good jobs and a clean environment, it’s both or neither.” We founded the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of unions and environmental organizations, to make that vision a reality. We always put our money where our mouth is.
Today we want to issue another challenge, first to Minnesotans and our elected officials, but then to all Americans, to step up and lead the global movement for responsible mining. Why Minnesota?
First, we are one of the five largest non-fuel mining states in America. Second, we have top-notch research facilities that have provided technological answers to vital resource issues for decades, such as the magnetic separation and flotation that was developed at the University of Minnesota and created the taconite industry. We are known leaders in water purification technologies.
More important, we have watched with anger, and sometimes with shame and despair, as the battles we have fought for workers’ rights, for health and safety on the job and in our communities, have been eroded by the investment of global mining companies in operations in low wage/poorly regulated environments around the world. But our approach to these problems has always been to fix them, not to turn a blind eye.
For instance, in the 1960s, when the dangers of exposure in the mines, smelters, and refineries where our members worked became clear to all, we didn’t advocate simply closing those facilities. Instead, we succeeded in passing OSHA and implementing the first lead standard that protected Americans on the job and provided protocols for monitoring blood lead levels and paid relief off the job, when necessary. When the Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA), was passed in 1977, with the help of Rep. Jim Oberstar, we ensured that all metal mines were covered as well, guaranteeing annual safety inspections.
Today, in Minnesota, we need a statewide effort to define what responsible mining means in a 21st-century economy, how it should be regulated, encouraged, and, once permitted, how it should be governed.
We need that effort because we cannot succeed in confronting the challenge of climate change to global society without a significant increase in the mining of critical minerals needed to address the transition to a decarbonized society. And we need the demand for those critical minerals to be met in such a way that mining practices — labor rights, human rights, and environmental standards — are improved globally. It is not acceptable, for instance, that the increased demand for lithium and cobalt by the worldwide push for vehicle electrification has resulted in the displacement of indigenous communities for lack of water in Chile or increased child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Fortunately, we have at least one good example of what it means to be a responsible mining company in the United States. In western Montana, about 50 miles southwest of Billings and 25 miles from the edge of Yellowstone National Park, in the foothills of the Beartooth Mountains, the Stillwater Mining Company has been producing platinum for almost three decades.
Employing over 1,500 USW miners, Stillwater has been partners with two local conservation groups in a binding legal document called “a good neighbor agreement” (GNA). The GNA commits both parties to transparency, the regular exchange of information, consultation during the development of mine plans, access to independent technical expertise, and a binding arbitration process to ensure that all legal standards are met, that higher expectations can be set, and that trust can be built. In the 15 years that the GNA has been in effect, there have been no environmental lawsuits filed against Stillwater. Interested readers can find the GNA online.
Equally important is the role that recycling plays in the “circular economy” at Stillwater, which is the largest recycler of platinum in the United States. Platinum is the critical mineral in the catalytic converters required in all internal combustion engines in the U.S. to reduce the toxic exhaust fumes from our cars. Stillwater feeds the recycled platinum into the product it mines for use in the next generation of converters. Its slogan says it all, “We mine clean air.”
Again, we want to encourage our state elected officials and all stakeholders to take up the cause of making Minnesota the global leader of responsible mining. Equity in society is founded on a simple principle. If it’s important enough to ask someone else to do it, it’s important enough to do it ourselves.
Emil Ramirez is the director of District #11, United Steelworkers union (USW). Robert Bratulich and David Foster are retired directors of District #11.