TRENTON, GEORGIA/WASHINGTON - American labor unions are increasingly skeptical that President Donald Trump’s tariffs on products like imported Chinese steel will significantly increase manufacturing jobs, wages and conditions for workers.
At the Bull Moose Tube steel piping factory in the southern state of Georgia, 56 United Steel Workers (USW) union members have been locked out of their workplace for more than six weeks. Union members had rejected a new contract offer that included a modest pay raise, but also forced workers to pay significantly more for health insurance.
“I’m going backwards instead of forwards,” said steelworker David Horton, who has been off the job without pay since August 22. “What little bit of raises they’re offering us isn’t really a raise.”
Locked out employees have set up a protest site outside the plant while the company has hired non-union workers during the labor dispute.
A USW strike may seem illogical given the big boost the industry has had after Trump began imposing 25 percent tariffs on imported steel and aluminum beginning last March in what he called, a national security measure.
Since then, metal prices have increased by 30 percent and profits for American steel companies have soared.
Yet, Bull Moose Tube Workers dissatisfied with the company's offer are on strike while union members at two other companies have also voted to strike: 15,000 workers at plants owned by ArcelorMittal and 16,000 at U.S. Steel.
Union workers complain that, after years of voluntary belt-tightening, they are facing steep cuts in overall income and benefits while steel production continued to founder as it had since the 1970’s.
This isn't what they had hoped would result from Trump's tariffs.
“I don’t think that President Trump intended to increase the value of steel and increase the steel production in the country for companies to use it like they’re using it on us,” said Joey Casey, the president of the United Steelworkers' local chapter that is locked out of Bull Moose Tube. “I think it’s an abuse.”
But U.S. steel companies may be hesitant to expand worker wages based on tariffs that business leaders view as temporary measures that will eventually be rescinded.
“In the long run the jobs that are created or saved are unsustainable. And eventually, if the tariffs go away, that industry is going to suffer very, very badly,” warned Ian Murry, a labor analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Major labor organizations are closely aligned with the Democratic Party, but they tepidly supported the Republican president’s tariffs – in the beginning. USW had asked that Canada be exempted from the tariffs because the union has more than 225,000 Canadian members. Tariffs went into effect on Canadian steel at the beginning of June.
Now, it’s harder to decipher just where the unions stand in regards to the tariffs. VOA contacted the leadership of a number of them, including USW, and none agreed to an interview.
“The labor movement, it’s a kind of fractured universe with a lot of different interests among it, but one theme that does prevail at least in the rhetoric of labor is the notion of solidarity,” said Leon Fink, a labor historian and editor of the journal "Labor: Studies in Working-Class History.”
Credit for 'helping'
Union leaders say tariffs should be supplemented by other measures, such as ending corporate tax deductions for shifting jobs overseas, investing in infrastructure projects that could create vast numbers of new jobs, and providing training programs to make American workers more productive.
“We think that at times tariffs can be an appropriate tool to address the problem, but they do not constitute a comprehensive strategy in and of themselves,” said Josh Nassar, the United Auto Workers legislative director, during testimony in late September to the Senate Finance Committee about the impact of tariffs on the auto industry.
Labor unions remain adamantly opposed to most of the Trump administration’s economic agenda, from tax cuts for the rich to easing regulations protecting worker rights and safety.
“On all those points they withhold support and are deeply critical of the Trump agenda,” said Fink, the labor historian.
The labor movement also opposes Trump’s effort to ease environmental regulations and what they say are his administration’s restrictive anti-immigrant polices.
“Unions see immigrants as a strong source of future union members and of course the president is trying to dampen down immigration,” said labor analyst Murry.
Striking union members are increasingly skeptical about Trump’s tariffs too, since their fortunes are not rising along with the steel corporations. Still, many union members give the president credit for trying.
“It was nice to see the president step in and try to do something for the industry,” said Casey, leader of locked out union workers at the Bull Moose Tube plant.
Deborah Bloom in Trenton, Georgia, contributed to this report.