Subjugation in Steel

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

One cost of freedom is steel. To remain independent, America must maintain its own vibrant steel industry.

Steel is essential to make munitions, armor plate, aircraft carriers, submarines and fighter jets, as well as the roads and bridges on which these armaments are transported, the electrical grid that powers the factories where they are produced, the municipal water systems that supply manufacturers, even the computers that aid industrial innovation.

If America imports that steel, it becomes a vassal to the producing countries. It would be victim to the whims of countries that certainly don’t have America’s interests in mind when they act. In the case of China, the attempt to subjugate is deliberate. Beijing intentionally overproduces, repeatedly promises to cut back while it actually increases capacity, then exports its excess, state-subsidized steel at below-market costs. This slashes the international price, which, in turn, bankrupts steelmakers in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Spain and elsewhere. Then, China dominates.

To his credit, President Donald Trump has said America can’t be great without the ability to make its own steel. He ordered the Commerce Department to investigate the extent to which steel imports threaten national security. Commerce officials are scheduled to brief Senate committees on the inquiry today. That’s because they’re being second guessed by a handful of federal officials, exporters and corporations whose only concern is profit, not patriotism. To protect national security, American steel and family-supporting jobs, the administration must stand strong against foreign unfair trade in steel that kills American jobs and creates American dependency. 

Imports already take more than a quarter of the U.S. steel market. They rose in May by 2.6 percent, seizing a 27 percent market share. That is dangerous. America can’t rely on unfairly traded foreign steel as it tries to expand manufacturing jobs or when it faces foreign threats. Defense needs are the basis of the administration inquiry, called a Section 232 investigation under the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

National security relies on dependable, modern transportation and utility systems as well as armaments. To produce defense materials, factories need supplies to arrive routinely and electricity to flow consistently. Steel is just as crucial for roads, bridges, airports and utilities as it is for armor plate.

Some importers are pressuring Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross not to recommend imposing limits or tariffs on steel imports, asserting that the only consideration should be price. They contend that if China, South Korea, Japan and Turkey subsidize their steel production, which lowers the cost of exports, then American builders should benefit – no matter how much that damages national security or destroys steelworkers’ family-supporting jobs. Their preoccupation with profit at their country’s expense should disqualify them from consideration.

To be clear, American steel companies and my union, the United Steelworkers, have tried repeatedly to resolve the problem of trade cheating through normal channels – filing trade enforcement cases against the violators. But the United States has refused to take currency manipulation by countries like China into account. And every time an American company wins an enforcement case against a trade law violator and tariffs are imposed on a particular type of steel import, China and other cheaters begin subsidizing a different type of steel and exporting that.

American companies  have won dozens of cases – welded stainless steel pressure pipe, rebar, line pipe, oil country tubular goods, wire rod, corrosion-resistant steel, hot-rolled steel, cold-rolled steel, cut-to-length plate, grain-oriented electrical steel. But in every case, countries like China and South Korea find a way to circumvent the rulings by subsidizing some new steel product and exporting that or by trans-shipping – sending the product to another country first to make it look like the steel originated there to evade the tariffs.

American steel producers and steelworkers can compete successfully against any counterpart in the world, but they can’t win a contest against a country. 

The USW and American producers are looking for a broader solution now, something that will prevent cheating and circumvention across-the-board. And they have good reason to believe they can count on Commerce Secretary Ross. This is a guy who knows the industry and has a track record of saving steel mills and jobs.

At the turn of the century, as recession and the Asian financial crisis pushed more than 30 U.S. steel companies into bankruptcy, Secretary Ross bought a half dozen failing steel firms and restored them to solvency.  

Because of his experience, Secretary Ross can be trusted to know the difference between China and Canada. American steelworkers and steel producers aren’t looking for blatant protectionism. American firms and Canadian companies have relationships in which steel from Canton, Ohio, may travel to St. Catherines, Ontario, where it is converted into engine blocks that are then shipped back across the border to Detroit, Mich., for installation in cars. Canada doesn’t illegally subsidize its steel industry or manipulate its currency. Only countries like China, Russia, South Korea and others that flagrantly violate international trade rules should be subject to the Section 232 sanctions.

Secretary Ross experienced the hell of 30 steel bankruptcies. He knows just how bad it can be for workers, companies and the country. With President Trump at his back, Secretary Ross now is key to ensuring American steel doesn’t descend back into that hell and that America remains steel independent.

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Image of USW member at EVRAZ North America by Steven Dietz

Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation and the President's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee 2.0. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.  He is a member of the executive committee for IndustriALL Global Labor federation and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger

Posted In: From the USW International President

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