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Minntac layoffs: No volunteers accepted

Chad Daniels smiles as he sees his son Isaac, 7, take over the goalie position during a soccer game at Vic Power Park in Hibbing on Wednesday. Daniels, who was recently laid off at Minntac, watched the game with his wife, Stephanie (left), and their two other children. Next to Daniels, their daughter Ashley, 10, shields herself from the rain with a blanket. (Amanda Hansmeyer/Duluth News Tribune)

HIBBING - Chad Daniels, 33, lost his job of four years as an electrical maintenance technician at Minntac on March 13, and he doesn't know when or whether he'll be able to return.

Come September, his health insurance benefits will lapse unless Minntac recalls him, and Daniels of Hibbing said he'll have little choice but to find another job to support his wife and three children, ages 7, 10 and 14.

"I'll do what I can to stick around the Range, but I'll go wherever necessary to provide for my family," he said.

Minntac stands to potentially lose a number of young, talented workers if layoffs continue. And it's a situation that might have been avoided if U.S. Steel allowed workers with fewer family obligations to take voluntary time off instead of laying off newest employees first.

Other mine operators have done exactly that, said Mike Woods, president of United Steelworkers 1938, which represents most of Minntac's employees.

Woods said U.S. Steel Corp. has rebuffed the union's efforts to seek voluntary layoffs, despite contract language that requires the company to implement a layoff minimization plan before it cuts any workers with three years' experience or more. But U.S. Steel said it would consider voluntary layoffs only if the union agreed to give the company a freer hand to contract out additional work, Woods said.

Courtney Boone, a U.S. Steel spokeswoman, declined to discuss the issue of voluntary layoffs at Minntac but said the company continues to abide by its collective bargaining agreement with the union.

U.S. Steel Corp. already has let go of 384 employees at Minntac. By the end of this week, up to another 250 workers at the Mountain Iron taconite processor are expected to join the ranks of laid-off miners.

Following the cuts, about 350 Steelworker members will remain on the job at the Iron Range's largest taconite operation, Woods said.

U.S. Steel has been letting go of workers in reverse order of seniority by classification.

But U.S. Steel could be doing much more to cushion the blow, Woods said. He pointed to the nearby Minorca mine, owned by ArcelorMittal, where senior employees were allowed to take voluntary time off rather than see younger co-workers with families lose their paychecks and possibly crucial benefits, such as health coverage.

Ray Pierce, president of United Steelworkers Local 6115, said he was impressed with the response of his membership in the face of Minorca's plans to cut staff. In all, 127 people have agreed to be laid off at Minorca -- all on a voluntary basis -- during an 11-week mine shutdown scheduled to begin May 10.

"A lot of our people agreed to take voluntary layoffs to let some of our younger members hold onto work and so that they wouldn't lose benefits," Pierce said.

Jerry Stainiger, a Minntac warehouse worker with 40 years of seniority, said he would seriously consider accepting a voluntary layoff if given the chance.

"Voluntary layoffs are one of the best things you can do in a situation like this," he said.

Stainiger noted that young families faced with the prospect of reduced compensation and discontinued health-care benefits often are forced to move in search of new employment.

"You lose people who might never come back," he said. "I think U.S. Steel should do everything it can to keep young people here, because they're the future of the company."

Daniels said voluntary layoffs are a proven method of mitigating the pain of staffing cuts.

"This is how we survive," he said. "Mining is a cyclical industry, and this is one of the ways we've found to get through these times."

"What really irks me is that it's not like they [U.S. Steel] would have to sacrifice to offer voluntary layoffs," Daniels said. "It's like a slap in the face."