ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A tide of mine closures and layoffs sweeping across Minnesota's Iron Range gave extra weight Monday to Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk's annual drive to help stock northeastern Minnesota food shelves.
The global slump in the steel industry has hit Minnesota's iron ore-producing region hard, creating an economic downturn that Bakk says has put a strain on food shelves throughout the northeastern corner of the state. Although the Iron Range has dealt with the ups and downs of the national economy in the past, Bakk said this time is different: Hundreds of steelworkers are losing jobs when the nation as a whole is faring well.
"The Range should be humming along when our nation is selling cars. We're over half shut-down," the Cook Democrat said at Monday's fundraiser at a St. Paul bar. He has hosted the event for nine years running.
Nationwide, the industry is struggling because a strong dollar has made it hard to export U.S. steel, low oil prices have reduced producer demand for tubular steel goods and other countries are flooding the market with cheap steel, according to Mark Phillips, commissioner of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation economic development agency.
November provided just the latest grim news for the Iron Range. Magnetation LLC announced last week it may shut down an iron ore production plant in Bovey, Minnesota, next year, affecting up to 163 workers. A day earlier, Natural Resources said it would temporarily shut down a second plant, Northshore Mining, in a move that could sideline up to 540 workers.
With that grim news as a backdrop, the fundraiser quickly cleared the previous record for $120,000, which will go to food shelves in the area.
"It's going to help a lot of people you're never going to meet," he said.
Bakk and Gov. Mark Dayton are thinking of a special session to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off steelworkers before funds dry up. In his letter to lawmakers seeking a special session, Dayton said 600 miners could exhaust those benefits before the Legislature's early March return date.
House Republicans have been non-committal, but Dayton said Monday he's still hopeful. The governor and Bakk are also seeking a meeting with President Barack Obama to use his trade authority to help the reeling Iron Range.