MARQUETTE COUNTY — At Sherri’s Restaurant in Ishpeming, above the faint clatter of dishes from the kitchen, the conversation of the day in winter skips around from town gossip to snowmobiling to the latest storm to close the local schools. As one might expect in a no-frills Upper Peninsula diner, the food is all-American, the portions ample.
Said owner Sherri Steele of the “farmers’ omelette” on the breakfast menu, a calorie-rich platter of three eggs, green pepper, onion, cheese, potatoes and toast on the side: “It’s huge.”
But as she prepared for the Friday night smelt fish fry she’ll dish up that evening, Steele touched on another topic that looms over this community: What if the mines close?
“I’d say at least a quarter, maybe half, of my business is miners,” Steele said. “Any job is important in the U.P. If they closed, we would all really feel it.”
After all, this is iron ore country and the two yawning open-pit mines a few miles southeast might as well be on the endangered species list. They are the U.P.’s last remaining iron ore mines.
Between them, the Tilden and Empire mines west of Marquette issue paychecks to about 1,050 union workers. They labor for generous blue-collar benefits and wages — some grossing upward of $90,000 a year — jobs that are all but irreplaceable in this hardscrabble country.
But as negotiations for a new labor contract drag on, the operation looks to be hanging by a thread, as a retreating Chinese economy and cheap foreign steel have dropped the bottom out of the market.
Mining against the wall
A mile wide and 1,200 feet deep, the 52-year-old Empire mine is already on borrowed time.
Confirming earlier announcements, Lourenco Goncalves, CEO of Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources — the mines’ majority owner — said in late January the mine will close sometime this year.
That will likely cost several hundred jobs, though company officials declined to say how many. The mine employs about 350 union workers. The firm has already idled two of its three Minnesota iron mines.
If the market for ore rebounds, the younger, adjacent Tilden mine could have another couple decades.
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