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Time running out for thousands of Iron Range workers with no union deal struck

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Concern is mounting for the futures of thousands of workers in Minnesota's Iron Range with no deal yet struck between unions and two major mining firms.

Contracts between unions representing 2,300 workers at taconite mines operated by U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal expire on Tuesday, with negotiations having continued this week with no deal reached.

According to MPR, it is the first time "in a generation" that negotiations are taking place at a time when the steel industry is in a slump, caused by cheaper foreign ore that is flooding into the United States.

There is great concern that mining firms will use the downturn to lock its workers into less favorable conditions, MPR notes, with hundreds having already been temporarily laid off this year through the idling of several taconite plants in the Range.

Hundreds of workers and their families held a rally in the Iron Range earlier this month calling for "Fair Contracts Now," with their plight supported by leading state politicians including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.

Brian Zarn, president of Steelworkers Local 6860 in Eveleth, told workers at the rally that the downturn is being used "as an excuse to permanently gut workers' contract language and benefits," the Star Tribune reports.

"People are a bit anxious now because it's coming down to the wire," Harold Anderson, an ArcelorMittal electrician in Virginia, Minnesota, told the newspaper "People are more concerned this time around than ever."

It follows bargaining in Pittsburgh that led to the lockout of 2,200 union members from a stainless steel plant in Pennsylvania, as Allegheny Technologies brought in outside workers, the newspaper notes.

The expiring U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal contracts will be followed a month later by the expiration of a union contract with Cliffs Natural Resources.

The companies haven't commented on the negotiations, but U.S. Steel President Mario Longhi did say last month that it has been taking "aggressive and decisive actions to address the extremely challenging conditions we continue to face in North America," according to Recycling Today.

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