Mining president should reassess back-fired tactics

President Williams

As a former CEO, I have a somewhat different take on the political melt-down over the ferrous mining bill for Wisconsin. Top executives are paid to get results, and the negative vote in the state senate and decision by Gogeobic Taconite President Bill Williams to pull out of Wisconsin was anything but a positive result for the company.

President Williams needs to take a look in the mirror before doling out a lot of blame. The chorus of job champions on the right, most of who have never created a job or made a payroll, have turned their recrimination machines on Dale Schultz, a former GOP majority leader in the senate, and on the 16 senate Democrats who voted “no.” It was all their fault.

Yet any seasoned CEO would take a step back after such a flop of a major initiative and ask where he or she went wrong. Ditto for the Republican leaders in the legislature.

Williams decided on a unilateral strategy of teaming up with the Republican majorities to pass a law that that would streamline the mining permitting process. Democrats had no voice in the process. Environmental groups were also excluded. Is it any wonder, then, that they refused to support the one-sided bill that was presented?

He issued what amounted to be ultimatums, which is risky negotiating tactic seldom employed by seasoned CEOs. Ultimatums have a way of blowing up in your face.

Further, the company never tipped its cards on how they were going to deal with the environmental issues. GeoTac’s materials and presentations stressed the major economic benefits of the mine, and they were impressive. Wisconsin needs high pay jobs, especially the northwestern part of the state.

But the environmental iceberg was always there. The company knew it, but avoided all dialogue with environmental groups. If Williams had been as open about his EMS – Environmental Management System – as he was about the economic benefits, he might have been able to neutralize some of the opposition. Surely he had an EMS in mind.

What was GTAC going to do with the tailings? Were they going to backfill the open pit as mining progressed north from Mellen? How were they going to handle run-off waters? Were the waters used in the mining process going to be recycled or treated in any way before discharge down the Bad River? Answers to those pertinent issues were unclear.

If the Republicans had pulled responsible environmental groups into the discussions, and if the company had been forthcoming on its EMS plans, those kinds of issues could have been worked out ahead of the vote.

Now, let’s be realistic. Some of the green groups would never have been satisfied, even as they live their metal-surrounded lives. But if the environmental safeguards had been laid out, Schultz and a few Democrats could have been pulled to the positive side of the vote count. Some of them wanted the mine to open, but wanted to be assured it would be run right. Schultz showed enormous political courage in sticking to his position that the permitting process had to provide for environmental protections.

Another reality is that hyper-partisan politics played a major role in the negative outcome. Private sector unions went to bat for the mine, but clearly the Democratic honchos and the public union leaders didn’t want to give Gov. Walker and the Republicans a job creation victory prior to the June recall elections. They want Walker out and collective bargaining and union dues collection back so bad that they were willing to take the heat for coming off as anti-jobs.

That’s pretty cynical politics, and it had nothing to do with the environmental issues.

All that said, Williams should re-assess his tactics that didn’t work, wait for the results of the recall elections and then try to pull both parties and the green groups into a bipartisan compromise that will allow a clean-tech mine to open. Last week doesn’t have to be the last chapter.

President Williams gets paid to mine not whine.

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