By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009
As visitors to this week's G-20 summit in Pittsburgh are frequently reminded, the host city has bounced back from the collapse of its steel industry in the 1980s.
But for the city's preeminent union, the United Steelworkers, the arguments that began here decades ago over the threat of foreign trade are far from settled.
On Friday, the United Steelworkers weighed whether to join a trade case accusing China of dumping seamless steel tubes in the United States. Earlier this week, it launched a lawsuit with three U.S. manufacturers against Chinese imports of coated paper. These actions closely followed two trade victories the union garnered earlier this month with a tariff on Chinese tires and a favorable decision on other steel products.
So as many speak in Pittsburgh of the virtues of international economic cooperation, embattled union President Leo W. Gerard, a gruff and perpetually disheveled 62-year-old former nickel smelter worker, advocated something else entirely, and showed that whatever the G-20 sentiments, maintaining trade peace is not entirely up to those national leaders.
In discussing charges that Chinese and Indonesian paper suppliers were dumping product in the United States, Gerard called for more confrontation with China, which he frequently compares to a schoolyard tyrant.
"They want to bully their way around," he said of the Chinese exporters and government officials. They "think they can push us around," he said. "I would hope our government would start talking back."
The union's victory in the Chinese tires case, which came when President Obama approved a 35 percent tariff, provoked a storm of criticism from advocates of free trade as well as from China.
In the critics' view, the steelworkers campaign is a form of protectionism that risks provoking a broader trade war, which in turn could endanger the global economy.
A trade war could, the argument goes, backfire on the union by making manufacturing in the United States more difficult because it would become more difficult for companies to acquire cheap imported supplies. It would also raise prices for consumers.
"The steelworkers have a reflexive opposition to trade liberalization that is not in the long-term interest of their members," said Stephen Claeys, a former Bush administration trade official. "They're just never satisfied."
The predominance of such views, particularly in the media and Washington think tanks, makes Gerard angry, and he quickly lashed out at a group of about 10 reporters at the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh earlier this month.
"I resent all of you," he said. "Every one of you writes the same crap -- that this is protectionism. This isn't protectionism -- we're enforcing the law."
The essence of Gerard's argument is that international trade functions best when participants are forced to obey the rules, just as traffic flows best when drivers fear the threat of a ticket.
"Since 2002, we've lost almost 60,000 jobs [in the paper industry] -- most of that due to unfair trade," Gerard said. "All we are asking for is the enforcement of our laws.
"If I sound a little bit bitter it's because I am," he said.
For years, as the steelworkers union has come to represent a broad array of industrial workers -- those in glass, brick, aluminum, rubber, paper -- it has become one of the most prominent actors in U.S. trade cases, filing dozens of cases citing foreign competitors for dumping products here or receiving illegal government subsidies.
It is far more active than any other union, or even any single company.
Companies struggling under a surge of imports often lack the time or financial wherewithal to launch the legal process, which often costs more than $1 million per case.
"There are lots of industries that have gone out of business in the U.S. that could have brought trade cases but didn't," said Terence P. Stewart, a trade attorney who has represented the union, citing examples in the textile and automotive fields. Some of them simply didn't have the resources."
When the union has represented workers in industries harmed by unfair imports, Stewart said, the "steelworkers stepped up," often persuading companies to file trade cases.
China, which has run a $108 billion trade surplus for the first seven months of the year, is now fully in Gerard's sights, as when he criticizes the quality of their exports.
"It's no different in steel than it's in toys or medicine or dog food," he said "You're never sure you're getting what you're ordering."
But one of his primary complaints is that the Chinese government subsidizes many industries that compete against U.S. manufacturers, in violation of trade rules, which results in the dumping of cheap products in the United States. The government subsidies constitute an unfair trade advantage, he said.
"They got subsidized land, cheap loans, they got low wages," he said.
David Spooner, an attorney who represented two Chinese trade associations in the tires case and whose firm represents both Chinese and domestic manufacturers, said the surges of Chinese exports are sometimes an unintentional byproduct of the country's domestic policies.
"China often supports key industries and that may result in cheap Chinese exports," Spooner said. "But that's not the purpose. Those supports are aimed at maintaining full employment."
While Gerard's most pointed comments often seem generally directed at China, he said his anger is directed at its policies, not the country's workers. He is, among other things, interested in fostering international cooperation among unions.
"This is against the system that exploits us both," Gerard said.