How Much Will Steel Tariffs Cost Steelworkers


You can’t blame steelworkers for taking to the streets, demanding that their jobs and their security be protected from the dog-eat-dog competition that’s driving some steel companies into bankruptcy and steel workers onto unemployment lines. But sometimes when the demands of some steelworkers are met, even partially, other steelworkers are forced out of their jobs, and then they’re the ones demanding that politicians help them out.

On March 15, The New York Times reported that Brazilian steelworkers were protesting at the U.S. consulate in Sao Paulo, the commercial and industrial center of Brazil, while calling on Brazilian legislators to impose tariffs on U.S. goods.

Brazilian union officials say that up to 5000 steelworkers will be negatively affected by a recent U.S. regulation that imposes tariffs of up to 30 percent on some types of imported steel. An earlier Times report quoted British unionists as saying that the new U.S. steel tariffs could cost them 5000 jobs.

Although the world’s peoples could use steel for many more schools, hospitals, libraries and the like, the worldwide steel industry has more capacity (and steelworkers) than it can profitably use. As a consequence steelworkers, in effect, fight other steelworkers for the jobs that the steel bosses offer.

As the AFL-CIO rightly says, the international competition for jobs produces a “race to the bottom.” And of course, such competition is contrary to workers’ solidarity-the basic foundation of workers’ power and indeed the premise on which unions originated.

It’s too early to total up the number of steel jobs that will be lost in the next period. But it’s not too soon to point out that steelworkers worldwide need a different strategy to cope with the crisis plaguing steel companies, if they are to save their jobs and indeed help the world get the steel that many countries sorely need.

They need a different strategy simply because the present strategy isn’t working; if the goal of the strategy is to save steel jobs, no matter where. But even if the goal is to save only the jobs of one nation’s steel workers at the expense of others, the strategy has no long-term viability. Surely, as the expression has it, “what goes around, comes around,” which is another meaning of the phase, “the race to the bottom.”

But who will be the first to proclaim that the steelworkers’ strategy is a dead-end race to the bottom that can’t be halted soon enough? Will it be the U.S. steelworkers union (USWA), born of the heroic organizing drives against steel barons long known for their arrogance, and at times bestiality? Not likely, it seems.

While the steelworkers union fights a rear-guard battle to delay the inevitable shrinking of U.S. steel-making capacity, it merges with other unions, which helps pay the bills that maintain the privileged, secure lifestyles of the union’s ruling elite.

In February, the steelworkers union announced that it had opened formal merger negotiations with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees union, which has a reported 55,000 members. Previously, the steel union merged with the rubber workers union and the Southwest’s Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers union, among others.

These mergers do increase the steelworkers’ political clout somewhat in Washington, but for what ends, and at what price to steelworkers’ real security and solidarity?

In the weeks before President Bush imposed new, three-year tariffs on some imported steel, the steelworkers’ union expended its political capital to pressure Bush to act. The union lobbied legislators of both parties and brought to the nation’s capital up to 30,000 steelworkers and supporters to “stand up for steel.”

Reportedly, hundreds of buses brought steelworkers, politicians, and even high school marching bands to rally for a 40 percent tariff on imported steel. At the rally, the protesters were joined by “steel company CEOs and congressional representatives, Republicans and Democrats, from the industrial states” (Peoples Weekly World, March 9).

One report quotes steel union President Leo Gerard as saying that Bush’s tariff on steel imports was a “victory for grassroots activism.” No doubt the many union members and their supporters who campaigned for the tariff would agree, even if the “victory” is short term, has loopholes (the highest tariff expires in one year), and leaves 600,000 retirees in danger of losing their health benefits.

Other reports state that the steelworkers union and President Bush cut a deal, though they don’t say it so bluntly. In return for the tariff, it’s reported, Bush expects steelworkers in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania-where the next congressional elections could determine which party controls the new Congress-to “remember in November.” And of course, Bush has his eye on his own reelection bid, later on.

The New York Times (March 10) coined the phrase “Bush Democrats” to describe the one immediate political impact that the Bush tariff is having. Bernie Ravasio, a local union officer told the paper that “this year and beyond union members would remember candidates who helped them, whatever their party line.”

“Bush Democrats? I’d say that there’s a good probability of that around here now,” Ravasio said. A fellow officer said of President Bush, “So, somebody takes care of you, you take care of him.”

The reason these steelworkers say they are leaning on Bush, said Ravasio, is that “we all remember Clinton and Gore showing up in ’92 and promising to save the mills and then abandoning the issue and betraying us; we never heard from them again.” He added that the Clinton administration had concentrated on economic globalization at the expense of the Democratic Party’s old-line, blue-collar backbone in the mills.”

The steelworkers union planned to cope with the rise of fierce competition in the worldwide steel industry by making concession after concession to the steel bosses, and it’s fair to say they carried out their plan to the letter. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of steelworkers lost their jobs.

“The steel industry as we know it,” the union recently complained, “is nearing extinction. Much of it has already crumbled.” In other words, to judge from the number of lost jobs, the union’s strategy has been a failure. It’s as simple as that, unless the union’s strategists want to argue that it could have been worse. But that’s not an argument-that’s an unvarnished rationalization, since everything could be worse.

But they could be better, too. Things would be better for the union and the ranks if it would or could organize the non-union U.S. steel plants that are turning out 50 percent of the nation’s domestic steel, as imports account for a reported 18 percent of U.S. steel sales.

While the union spends big bucks and mobilizes its members to march on Washington, hand in hand with the CEOs of the old-line steel industry, it’s conspicuously silent about the unorganized segment of the domestic industry that should be on the receiving end of the union’s organizational and political firepower.

Now lets see if we understand the steel union tops’ thinking and why the ranks are taking one hit after another: Give the steel bosses concessions; ally with first one corporate political party and then the other; don’t organize the unorganized; and pursue one merger after the other, no matter if it doesn’t help the remaining unionized and working steelworkers keep their jobs, their peace of mind, and their dignity in knowing that they won their own fights without slumming with the bosses.

Just a note to jobless steelworkers who may be wondering where their next job is coming from: Please read a recent report from France, where some occupations are very short of workers due to the adoption of a national 35-hour workweek.

Now there’s a strategy worth looking into, n’est-ce pas?

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.