THE STEEL industry keeps bitterly arguing that all its most serious troubles spring from unfair foreign competition. That is an opinion shared by hardly anybody who does not work for a steel company, but the companies doggedly pursue their many complaints and accusations through the labyrinthine structure of the trade laws. The latest development is a vote by the International Trade Commission holding that the American producers have indeed been damaged by subsidized competition from Europe.
The decision will enrage some of the Europeans. But if it represents a political victory of sorts for the American steel makers, the ITC vote provides them with little actual relief. The effect is to impose duties on the imports equal to the subsidies. That will probably keep the highly subsidized steel, mainly British and Italian, out of the American market. But the same inquiry has also concluded that German and Dutch steel is not subsidized. The Japanese and Korean producers are not included in this case. In effect, the most formidable of the competition is not touched by the decision.
The trade laws are not working badly, on balance. They give a little comfort here and there, but not much -- and, at least so far, they have usefully deflected some of the political lightning. There's been a good deal of heavy breathing in Europe about retaliation and trade wars. But the really remarkable thing about the steel quarrel is that it hasn't done more damage to Atlantic relations.
In the United States, some 200,000 steel workers -- nearly half of the industry's work force -- are now out of work. In Britain, where unemployment is now 12.7 percent, employment in the steel mills has been cut to less than half of its strength of four years ago. In France, it's down by one-fourth. The world has grossly overbuilt its capacity to produce steel and now, at immense social and economic cost, it is having to close mills. The temptation is almost overwhelming -- and not only here -- to blame the distress on foreigners. But, for both Europeans and Americans, the roots of it are at home.
In casting his vote, Alfred Eckes, chairman of the ITC, observed that over the past decade, American steel wages rose at an annual average rate of 12.4 percent, far faster than inflation, while productivity rose 2 percent a year. He deprecated the idea that subsidized imports are "the sole or even the most important cause" of the domestic industry's decline. Another commissioner, Paula Stern, added that "to an industry plagued by prolonged, deep recession, delayed modernization, an overvalued dollar and a noncompetitive cost structure, these duties are no panacea."