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Mandate doesn’t apply: Iron Range steelworkers fight federal vaccine policy

Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 7:22 PM CST
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VIRGINIA, MN - Steelworkers at Minntac and Keetac will not be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccine for the time being.

Last week, U.S. Steel, which owns the two mines, notified locations across the country that they plan to enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) vaccination policy.

That policy would require all employees under OSHA’s jurisdiction to get the COVID-19 vaccine, or do weekly testing, following federal approval of President Joe Biden’s mandate.

OSHA’s policies, however, do not apply to their mines, which instead fall under the jurisdiction of the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

“We are governed by MSHA. Them basically telling us that we were going to follow OSHA policy, when MSHA had come out and said that they were not going to allow it, was the main reason [we were upset],” said USW Local 1938 President, Steve Bonach.

Bonach said the mandate itself wasn’t the main issue, though they did have some union members express concern over it.

He believes if a policy change like that is enacted, it needs to go through the proper channels.

Without MSHA involvement, he worries his union members were not a part of that process.

“What we believe in is doing the right thing as a company and following the way it was directed to be, and that’s to follow MSHA guidelines. That’s the main thing we argue,” he said.

While MSHA does not currently have a vaccine policy, they do have a list of guidelines for mines across the country.

Those guidelines include recommendations for masking, social distancing, and contact tracing among unvaccinated miners.

In a statement, a spokesperson wrote:

“MSHA is taking all appropriate steps to ensure miners are protected from COVID-19.”

Bonach said the union would like to be a part of negotiations if a mandate is proposed through the proper channels.

“We would still expect to bargain with the company over [a mandate] because it is a change of policy. When there’s a change in policy, whether it’s over safety issues like this or not, they have to bargain with us,” he said.

U.S. Steel also issued a statement. A spokesperson wrote:

“U.S. Steel will support all federal mandates where they are applicable. We have not yet implemented the federal government’s ETS requirements, so it would be premature to speculate about any such enforcement. We will continue to communicate with our employees about any policies, should they be put in place.”

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