NEW ORLEANS — Seven days a week, at 6 a.m. and 4 p.m., workers flock to the hiring center a few blocks from the Mississippi River and line up against the chain-link fence according to their seniority.
They bow their heads as they recite the Lord’s Prayer. “Give us this day our daily bread,” the union leader intones. Then the dockworkers lift their union cards high in hopes of securing work that day.
There’s a saying here that the ships don’t run on paper, they run on water. Because it’s never certain when a ship will dock, the longshoremen, who are mostly African American, must vie daily at the hiring center for work. And they fear that more workers could soon be turned away, as fewer steel boats sail into the Port of New Orleans.
The Trump administration is considering tariffs or other broad restrictions on steel brought into the country that would make imports more expensive and help U.S. steelmakers, which have struggled under foreign competition.
Steelmakers have rallied behind the idea. But, like all policies that influence trade, restrictions on imports would create losers as well as winners. An unlikely coalition of food packagers, automakers and other industries that use steel have fought against the measure, fearful that higher costs would cut into their profits or put them out of business entirely. Foreign allies that export steel to the United States have also protested, as have some White House advisers who fear igniting a trade war.
A decision was initially expected in June, but this backlash appears to have complicated the administration’s plan. In late July, President Trump said the administration was still intending to help U.S. steelmakers. Yet he pushed back on the timing, saying the measure might have to wait until after the White House moves forward with its plans for health care, taxes and “maybe even infrastructure.”
In the meantime, jobs like those at the Port of New Orleans — and the workers who depend on them — face an uncertain future.
More than 100,000 U.S. workers who manufacture steel and steel products could be helped if imports slow and the price of steel rises. Yet a huge number of jobs that depend on steel could also be at risk. Nearly 1 million workers make cars and car parts, while tens of thousands of dockworkers move goods at the nation’s ports. The Port of New Orleans and its network of brokers, freight-forwarders and warehouses employ 4,000 people alone.
The longshoremen have the kind of good-paying blue-collar jobs that Trump has often promised to protect. Yet few places would feel the blowback from Trump’s trade policy as keenly as the ports.
Steel makes up nearly half of all the goods that flow through the Port of New Orleans. The volume of exports going through the port could also drop, if other countries close their borders to U.S. goods in protest. European officials have already threatened to restrict U.S. agricultural goods in response to steel tariffs.
“He trying to stop imports from other countries, but that’s our main revenue. You start messing with revenue, that’s when s--- hits the fan,” David Sanders, a 41-year-old dockworker, said of Trump. “He messing with something he don’t have no business with.”
On a morning in late June, Sanders leaned against a friend’s car in the parking lot of the union hiring center and recalled how trade had helped him raise six children and support a vibrant community.
“That’s how the United States keep going. That’s how we flow,” he said.
The morning cool was evaporating, and so were the hundreds of people who had come to the hiring center in search of work. Crows hopped on the corrugated tin roof above the now-quiet pen where the day’s jobs had been doled out. Men stood in small circles in the parking lot, trading jokes and yelling out goodbyes.
Sanders spent more than 15 years working his way up the ladder of jobs the men call “the college of the river,” and he now has a decent shot at getting work on whatever boats come in.
But others, like Dwayne Frank, 25, would feel the effects of a steel tariff first. Frank is what the union calls a “casual,” the most junior employee who has the last pick at the day’s jobs.
“It definitely jeopardize me, as being a casual. You take away my ability to feed my family,” said Frank, a short, stocky man with gray sweatpants, dusty blue sneakers and gold teeth. “If you stop steel right now, I gotta go to Home Depot or Burger King. Hell no, that’s where I came from.”
Frank’s dad worked on the docks for 42 years, raising Frank and his 16 brothers and sisters in a three-bedroom house. Frank makes $25,000 to $30,000 a year “if the ships come in,” he said — enough to support his two children, but just barely.
Frank was studying business administration in hopes of landing a desk job, but he couldn’t balance night classes and also support his family. So he returned to the docks where his dad labored for decades. Now he’s working toward the $30-an-hour salary that more senior union members can make and trying to stay on “the right side of the tracks” — unlike some of his friends, he said.
Frank voted for Trump “because he had money” — but he said he wasn’t so naive as to think the president would actually help him.
“Us being poor, we don’t see what Donald Trump doing for us. We feel that the wealthy are getting more help,” Frank said. “The rich always been taken care of as long as I’ve been living.”
New Orleans dockworkers have long suffered the consequences of political decisions hammered out more than 1,000 miles away in Washington.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan persuaded other countries to restrain their exports of steel to the United States, and the volume of steel moving through the port plummeted. The same thing happened in 2002, when George W. Bush imposed tariffs of up to 30 percent on steel imports.
Sanders was at the docks when the jobs started to evaporate. Early in the morning, he would go from company to company looking for work that day, and he’d often return home disappointed. Some workers tried different jobs but found it would take them three days of labor to earn as much as they could in one day at the port.
“In 2003, it was real slow,” Sanders said. “It was a struggle; that was the year we was all going other places.”
Bush lifted the tariff later that year, as allies threatened to retaliate against U.S. exports, and steel ships began to return to the port. But Bobby Landry, the port’s chief commercial officer, is worried the experience might be repeated.
“As a port, we obviously are very dependent on trade. If there is no trade, we as an entity don’t have to exist,” Landry said. “I think the impact for us would be devastating, but also for the U.S. consumer who is going to bear the brunt of this.”
Past the floodwall and Mardi Gras World, an expansive warehouse where elaborate, brightly colored parade floats are stored, a crew of men selected at the hiring center that morning unloaded a rusty red ship nearly two football fields long. The workers attached massive coils of Japanese steel sitting in the belly of the ship to a crane, which lifted them high into the air and deposited them into a barge waiting in the river.
In a matter of months, that steel would be in the hands of U.S. consumers. Like much of the steel that travels through the Port of New Orleans, the coils that the crew handled that day were destined for a factory in the Midwest.
The steel coils would travel by barge up the Mississippi and Illinois rivers to the DS Containers factory in Batavia, Ill., where machines would bend them into aerosol cans for products like Reddi-wip whipped topping and Pam cooking spray.
America’s deep dependence on trade was one reason that Trump’s promise to fix the international trading system resonated so deeply with some voters. But it’s also why his threats to disrupt trade have met with an intense backlash.
Now, U.S. businesses and foreign allies are waiting to see whether Trump will make good on campaign promises to enact the protectionist, America-first trade policy that was one of the pillars of his candidacy.
Trump has fulfilled only some of his campaign promises on trade, while abandoning or moderating others. But restrictions on steel would be the most concrete manifestation yet of a protectionist trade policy that Trump has publicly espoused for decades. If the administration ultimately finds that steel imports threaten U.S. national security by degrading the country’s industrial capacity, the president would have broad authority to impose tariffs, quotas or a combination of those measures on trading partners.
A spokesman for the Commerce Department, which is investigating whether steel imports compromise national security, said that the department was carefully considering more than 1,600 pages of written submissions and testimony from 37 people, including Landry, and that it would take a methodical and reasoned approach to any recommendations.
The jobs at the port are dangerous, and workers trade stories of falling off a shipping container or nearly being crushed by a 30,000-pound coil of steel. Some said they saw a friend lose a limb, while others talked of a co-worker who was crushed when his forklift tipped. Some told of nightmares of being swallowed by the muddy Mississippi. And many say they kiss their children and wives each day with the knowledge they might not come back.
Still, the jobs sustain a vibrant middle-class community in a city where poverty is rampant and too many people lose their futures to drugs, prison or violence. Because the port is unionized and pays a living wage, it’s one of the most desirable jobs in an area with few other options, said Chris Hammond, a local union leader.
Like Sanders and Frank, Hammond is black. He sees the port as the main pillar holding up an African American community that has been wracked by centuries of slavery, racism and economic exclusion and that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Even workers without an education can work their way up on the docks to make $50,000 to $75,000 within five years.
The port lifted Hammond’s family from poverty in just one generation. His mom was an orphan, and his father, from a sharecropping family in Mississippi, never learned to read or write. When his parents were married, they fashioned a wedding ring from the metal fastener on a sack of bread.
But his father’s career at the port gave the family a middle-class life. His mom stayed home and kept a close eye on him, always making him come home by the time the streetlights came on. Hammond graduated from college and graduate school — Tulane, where he studied molecular biology. He initially aspired to a career in medicine, which earned him his nickname at the port — “Doc.”
“People don’t understand how the waterfront helps people,” Hammond said, as he drove his pickup over the train tracks and past the floodwall that separates the port from the city. “I can tell you how it trickles down — my niece is an anesthesiologist from Yale.”
The city of New Orleans grew up around the port, and it’s still the biggest employer, Hammond said. And if new restrictions on imports affect the port, that would also trickle down into the community — hurting the workers who dredge the river, the mechanics who maintain the trucks and machines, and the cashier at the nearby restaurant who serves Hammond and the other longshoremen sandwiches and peach sweet tea.
“When that tariff comes in, and it means less man-hours, the community suffers as a result,” he said. “New Orleans was founded for one reason — trade. If you take the trade out of New Orleans, where will your middle-class jobs be?”