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In Lake Superior iron country, US Steel miners face bleak times

Up in the ''Iron Range'' of Minnesota and northern Michigan, United States Steel Corporation miners, or rather, former miners, are bracing themselves for a rough winter.

At the beginning of October, a wave of layoffs swept over this region of taconite mining companies. And while the rest of the area's unemployed miners are now being rehired, 1,500 US Steel miners at the Minntac plant in Mountain Iron, Minn., are still drawing unemployment compensation. They don't know when, or if, they'll be rehired.

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The Minntac workers, who once averaged $10 an hour mining iron-rich taconite for the Iron Range's largest private-sector employer, are a slice of about 50, 000 steelworkers who have been laid off across the country. The steel industry points a blaming finger at high steel imports and interest rates as the cause of the national drop in steel employees.

But the Minntac workers question these reasons. After the Minneapolis newspapers reported that profits in the third quarter of this year increased almost fivefold at US Steel - to $536.9 million - the miners became skeptical. And fresh in their minds is the memory of a pledge last summer by US Steel chairman David Roderick. Mr. Roderick said the company would spend any benefits from Reagan administration tax law changes on steel projects.

Then came the announcement that US Steel was offering about $6.4 billion in cash and notes - $2 billion in unsecured loans from 33 US and foreign banks - to acquire Marathon Oil. Marathon is the nation's 17th-largest petroleum company.

''US Steel has, I think, done a disservice to the working people of the Iron Range so far as the fact that they have been laying off people on the one hand, and they're spending about $6.5 billion to buy an oil company,'' says Jim Hooper , an unemployed Minntac miner.

''With winter coming and the cost of energy, it's not much fun,'' says Ed Wahlberg, vice-president of United Steel Workers Local 1938. ''Instead of buying an oil company, they should be modernizing the steel plants.''

There is little doubt that imported steel and the lag in the construction industry and appliance manufacturing have affected the Iron Range's economy. Stan Bennett of the Minnesota Department of Economic Security says that six area mining companies began laying off 4,300 employees in October, nearly 25 percent of northern Minnesota's mining work force.

The sluggish mining industry triggered still more layoffs in such satellite industries as tire supplies and equipment repair, pushing total Iron Range unemployment to about 14 percent in November.

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Gerald Cornell, US Steel manager for public affairs in the Upper Midwest, attributes the layoffs and his company's retention of 3,500 other Iron Range employees on four-day weeks to ''a generally soft market for steel.''

''Most of the mining companies have suffered the same,'' he says. ''But we only serve US Steel plants - consequently our taconite pellets go where the needs of US Steel are.''

In the meantime, the laid-off Minntac employees are doing their best to keep income flowing. A former railroad car repairman for US Steel, James McHarg of Eveleth, Minn., now spends his days baby-sitting. His wife went to work as a seamstress earning minimum wage the same day Mr. McHarg was laid off. For nearly two months, the family of four has been living on her income plus an unemployment check of $354 every two weeks, compared with the $650 McHarg was earning before.

Mr. Wahlberg, the union official, says many of the laid-off workers have taken to the woods to stock up on squirrels, rabbit, and deer. ''They're hunting ,'' he says. ''They're trying to fill up their freezers'' to prepare for the cold winter.

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