Dan Simmons believes President Trump's plan to slap hefty tariffs on steel imports could save his plant.
The U.S. Steel mill in Granite City, Ill., shuttered in 2015 — a move the company called “temporary” at the time and blamed on foreign competition. But the blast furnace that once employed about 1,800 people is still cold.
If Trump’s tariff takes hold, however …
“I expect to get the call to start this plant up immediately,” said Simmons, who worked there for nearly 40 years and heads the United Steelworkers Local 1899.
He felt optimistic last week after Trump announced a plan to impose tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel (and 10 percent on aluminum).
Some of his union comrades in Canada, however, condemned the proposal.
“This is going to cause chaos,” said Gary Howe, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1005 in Hamilton, Ontario, the city that produces more than half of Canada's steel. “A lot of steel goes back and forth, and automakers depend on that.”
The international union, which represents 1.2 million members in North America, with about a third living in Canada, has urged Trump to leave Canada out of the trade war that the president spoke of winning on Twitter.
“Canadian steel exports are part of deeply integrated supply chains for U.S. products,” United Steelworkers national director Ken Neumann said in a statement last week. “Imposing tariffs on Canadian exports risks causing significant economic harm and job losses on both sides of our border.”
The tension between union members comes as steelworkers in the United States have seen their ranks shrink, in part because of cheaper imports from Canada, Brazil, South Korea and Mexico.
Ten steel furnaces have shuttered on American soil over the last two decades, said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a nonprofit organization that supports factory workers, and an estimated 52,000 American workers in the industry have lost their jobs over the same period.
That's why he supports Trump's goal: “I just want to get this over the finish line,” Paul said.
Back in 2000, 105 companies produced raw steel at 144 plants in the United States, according to a recent report from the Department of Commerce. Today, 39 firms in 93 locations make steel.
“This is a critical issue for steelworkers who have been really pummeled by imports,” Paul said. “They’ve been struggling in an economy that is otherwise growing.”
Automation is also to blame. Tasks that used to take 10 hours for steelworkers in the 1980s can now be completed in two, allowing plants to produce more goods with fewer people, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade group in the District.
Some groups argue that tariffs wouldn’t reverse technology-driven disruption but could carry unintended consequences.
The Trade Partnership, a consultancy in the District, estimated in a study published Monday that tariffs would boost iron and steel jobs in the United States by 33,464 positions but slash 179,334 other jobs throughout the broader economy.
Other experts say the tariffs could put even more jobs at risk.
“Even if tariffs save every one of the 140,000 or so steel jobs in America, it puts at risk 5 million manufacturing and related jobs in industries that use steel,” wrote conservative pundit Larry Kudlow in a CNBC column Saturday with economists Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore. “These producers now have to compete in hypercompetitive international markets using steel that is 20 percent above the world price.”
Meanwhile, Trump has asserted tariffs would lift American factories.
“You will have protection for the first time in a long while, and you’re going to regrow your industries,” he said Thursday when he unveiled the plan at the White House.
Simmons, the Illinois steelworker, thought this week of the workers at his U.S. Steel plant who have struggled to find work elsewhere.
“I have grown men who are proud steelworkers — they’re in tears, crying up here in my office,” the union leader said. “They’re too proud to take handouts from people in our community.”
Since the plant closed, Simmons has focused on connecting people to food pantries and helping them sign up for unemployment benefits. Spiked demand for American-made products, he thought, could reverse their fortunes — and quickly.
“But I’ve heard this administration say things,” he said, “and not follow through.”