As President Trump softened on China, sparking criticism over a surprise campaign flip-flop, a manufacturer in Ohio stayed calm.
Steve Staub, president of Staub Manufacturing Solutions, a metalwork firm in Dayton, said trade with the Asian giant today is unfair to American businesses, who struggle to compete with Chinese firms built on cheaper labor. But the Trump voter still believes the president will deliver on his promise to protect blue-collar jobs — even though Trump just backed down from his pledge to label China a currency manipulator on “day one.”
“I’m not an economist,” said Staub, 47. “I’m just a guy in Ohio trying to make parts. I’ll wait and see what happens.”
Before winning the White House, Trump turned China into a political punching bag, asserting the country had committed “rape” against the United States economy. He regularly condemned China’s trade surplus with the United States and American firms that outsourced jobs to the country.
Last week, however, he dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping — “we had the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you've ever seen,” he told Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo — and agreed to offer China a sweeter trade deal if the country handled “the menace” of North Korea. Then he told the Wall Street Journal in an interview this week that China no longer warps its currency and that cooperating with Beijing on North Korea is more of a priority.
It’s still unclear what, exactly, that trade deal would entail or how China would approach North Korea, which has been stockpiling and testing nuclear missiles.
While China bends some international trade rules, economists say the country isn’t actively devaluing its currency, which would make its products more affordable in foreign markets and therefore lift its exports. In recent years, analysts say, the country has been attempting to boost the yuan, a move that would actually benefit U.S. exporters.
Still, groups that applauded Trump’s manufacturing focus after the election are slamming the president’s course change.
The United Steelworkers, a union of roughly 860,000 trade workers across North America, accused Trump in a statement Thursday of “following the same path that led to millions of lost jobs.”
“The President appears to be placating China to get them to help with the threat of North Korea in return for ignoring China’s economic attacks on the United States,” USW president Leo Gerard wrote. “Time and time again, workers across this country have seen their economic interests traded away for foreign policy goals.”
Some workers, though, are waiting to make judgment calls.
Robert James, a 19-year veteran at the Carrier furnace plant in Indianapolis, said he understood Trump’s action, though he hopes it would lead to more leniency with China in the future. (Earlier this year, Trump reached a deal with Carrier to keep 730 jobs slated for Mexico in the Midwest — including James’s position.)
“Trump took this stance because he realizes he needs China to be able to do anything with North Korea,” said James, 47. “That doesn’t mean the trade deals can’t be redone.”
James added the president’s goal will probably take time.
“If the American workers are still stuck in the same place we are right now,” he said, “that would mean Trump has not fulfilled his promise.”
For others in the manufacturing world, Trump’s shift on China brings a sense of relief.
“We rely on exports,” said Eric Burkland, president of the Ohio Manufacturing Association, which serves 1,400 business leaders in the state. “There is a general agreement with the president that the trade deals need a fresh set of eyes on them — just not to the extent that we close our borders.”