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Miners back to work

Minntac resumes third line; work force near capacity in northern Minnesota iron mine

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Nearly a thousand Minntac workers are on the job this week after the restart of a third production line last weekend.

Union leaders say they were told last month that two additional lines would be started in September, but until recently had no idea when exactly that would be and how many workers would be going back.

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That uncertainty ended this weekend when a third production line was added, bringing back the majority of remaining laid off workers.

Some of the employees coming back to work had been laid-off for almost six months.

"We've got just about everybody back," said Mike Woods, president of United Steelworkers Local 1938. "They came back this week. I think we've got about 35 people that remain on layoff right now."

Woods said the third line was fired up on Sunday and started producing pellets on Monday.

That means Minntac is producing pellets on three of its five lines, with the addition of a fourth line possible this week.

Woods said that's an indication that U.S. Steel must have orders for more steel.

About 360 Minntac workers had been operating one production line since June. A second was added in August, bringing employment at the plant back up to 770.

With the start of the third line this week, there are about 950 workers back at Minntac.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Erin DiPietro said the company is continuing to adjust production to stay in line with customer demand.

Craig Pagel, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, said manufacturers have depleted steel reserves, and now they need more.

Pagel said the Cash for Clunkers program should result in an additional increase in steel production, but it is unclear how the program will affect long-term demand.

Having nearly all Minntac workers back on the job isn't just good news for miners. Local businesses are feeling the effects and say they're seeing an increase in sales.

"It was getting pretty scary there for a little bit, but now it's starting to come back around," said Heather Kudis, a bartender and waitress at Rainy Lake Saloon and Deli in Virginia.

She says miners back at work means business will improve.

"I definitely think that it's going to help everybody out. It's going to help the businesses around here, it's going to help businesses everywhere," said Kudis.

Along with an increase in business, Kudis says she's even noticed an improvement in how her customers are feeling.

"A lot of people were scared and didn't know what was going to come, and I think it's kind of a positive thing for everybody around here," said Kudis.

Woods agrees.

"A lot of them are very happy," said Woods. "Nobody knows how long this will last, this situation, but I guess it's a good change from where we were sitting."

With the likely addition of a fourth line this week, Minntac would be producing at the same level it was before the economy soured.

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