Republicans Have a Rare Opportunity on Mining
“Two armored cars patrolled the Hull-Rust and Mahoning mines. Each car contained 22 sharpshooters with rapid fire Winchesters. At night the mines are armed with a force of 300 deputies.”
Duluth News Tribune – June 27, 1916
In 1916 US Steel effectively declared war on its labor force as they attempted to unionize in what become known as the Oliver Mining Strike. There were actually pitched battles being fought out in the streets of the Iron Range between union organizers and deputized mining security personnel. Eventually most of miners would return to work, but this dispute left deep scars that still fester today in these communities.
The strike was one of the seminal events for the Progressive movement within the Republican Party. In the early 1900s Minnesota Republicans were leading on progressive policies that were pushing back against the large monopolies and their political supporters amongst the “Stand Pat” old guard big business Republicans. Minnesota’s progressive Republican governor J.A.A. Burnquist took a surprising sharp turn to the “Stand Pat” wing of his party by strongly throwing his lot in with the mining companies during the 1916 strike. This despite recent examples of how progressive Republican leaders like Teddy Roosevelt helped diffuse labor unrest with monopoly interests.
Burnquist’s move in part led many Progressives to abandon the Republican Party, leading to a significant political realignment within the state. This led to one of the most vibrant third-party efforts under the banner of the Farmer Labor Party. By the mid-1920s the Farmer Labor Party would win several statewide offices and legislative seats, eventually winning the governorship in the 1930s during the Depression.
Mining on the Iron Range continues to be an Achilles’ heel for Minnesota Republicans as they try to establish their political philosophy within the mainstream of Minnesota. Republicans here had an impressive win in the 2014 campaign to regain the Minnesota House of Representatives, fueled almost exclusively by victories in the rural agricultural heartland of Minnesota. Part of that campaign to win in the rural area was to attack “extreme environmentalists” around the mining issue.
As reported earlier in this blog, that pro-mining message provided them no gains in the rough-and-tumble world of Iron Range politics. Nonetheless, this position was part of the broader narrative of being the better party to defend the interests of the heartland voters. This helped them succeed in such rural agricultural areas like Willmar, Albert Lea and Granite Falls to gain a majority in the House. Despite this, it would be foolish for the Republicans to think that this was a mandate to go back to the old “Stand Pat” big business Republicans’ philosophy in regards to mining.
Unfortunately, it seems that Burnquist’s political miscalculation on mining nearly 100 years ago is being replayed once again with the House Republican Caucus. One of the new Speaker’s first moves on the mining issue was to create a committee known as “Mining and Outdoor Recreation Policy”. The renaming of the old policy committee entrusted with protecting our natural resources, generally known around the Capitol as the Game and Fish Committee, has been widely ridiculed in most press accounts.
Further compounding the pro-mining company image has been the pronouncement of the chair of the newly renamed committee, Rep. Tom Hackbarth (R-Cedar), that it is time to get the ball rolling on the new nonferrous mining. These pronouncements sound more like a Republican primary candidate in a West Texas safe Republican district than a Minnesota leader trying to impress voters in the Twin Cities suburbs or rural heartland swing districts.
Certainly the heartland of Minnesota was open to the Republicans’ message on checking extremism to the left during this past election cycle. Nonetheless, over the long-term it would be my argument that it was never meant as a mandate to again blindly side with the mining companies. The voters in these swing districts know that multinational corporations do not have the taxpayer’s interest foremost in their mind.
Republicans would be far better off to fashion a conservative message on mining that better tracks with the voters in conservative suburbs and agricultural regions. For example, North Dakota has far better laws protecting the property rights of surface land owners like farmers, ranchers, resort owners and homeowners near mineral extraction sites. Maybe this new committee should be calling for hearings to protect property rights.
Further, the truth about this new nonferrous mining being proposed on the Iron Range is that it is extremely dangerous both to our natural resources and our taxpayers. Every single one of these nonferrous mining operations in other regions in recent history has lead to costly pollution of lakes and rivers. The cleanup cost is typically borne by taxpayers in the wake of bankrupt mining shell corporations. The mining company’s own estimates indicate that water from these new nonferrous mining sites will have to be treated for centuries (yes, centuries) after the closure of these mines. It is certainly not an extreme environmental position to protect taxpayers from expensive water treatment for centuries to come.
As a Republican, my hope is that my party leaders will seek out a mining position that will lead them into the mainstream of Minnesota politics for the long-term. We know politicians like to play the extremes off each other as wedge issues, but Republicans now have a rare opportunity to squarely stand for doing what’s right for Minnesota’s lakes and overall economy. A winning position here in the land of 10,000 lakes. To learn more on that, go to the Mining Truth website.