The first casualties of President Trump’s trade war are 60 workers at Mid-Continent Nail, America’s largest nail manufacturer. They lost their jobs on June 15 at a factory in a part of Missouri that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The whole company could be out of business by Labor Day.
This is a potential game changer in Trump’s trade strategy, especially if it marks the start of more companies announcing layoffs. On Monday, Harley-Davidson said it will be moving some “production” offshore because of the trade war (Europe hit Harley with a 31 percent tariff in response to Trump’s steel tariffs on Europe). Harley won’t confirm whether jobs are leaving the United States, but the union representing many Harley workers, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, is worried.
The Trump administration has argued that these tariffs will save jobs and that the cost to America will be minor. But now there are real job losses. Now there is a human face to the pain that so many trade experts have been warning about.
The political pressure on Trump to stop the tariffs (especially on America’s allies) is likely to escalate. In Missouri, a state with a close U.S. Senate race, the layoffs are already becoming a hot election issue. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is planning a visit to the nail plant on Friday.
Mid-Continent Nail blames the layoffs on Trump’s tariffs, and the company says all 500 employees could lose their jobs by Labor Day. The next round of cuts could come in a matter of days.
The trouble for the company started at the end of May when Trump put a hefty 25 percent tariff on steel imports from Mexico and Canada. Mid-Continent had been importing steel from Mexico that American workers would then turn into nails.
After the tariff, the company was forced to hike its prices, and customers fled. Orders are a mere 30 percent of what they were a year ago, said George Skarich, the vice president of sales. He suspects many customers are now buying Chinese nails.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and a ton of fear in Poplar Bluff,” home to Mid-Continent, Skarich said. He voted for Trump and says he’s “disappointed” and “sad” at what's happening to a town and a company he loves.
If Skarich had a minute with Trump, he says he’d tell him these tariffs aren’t hurting China, they are hurting Missouri. The workers who lost their jobs on June 15 were contract workers paid about $10 an hour, but the next round of layoffs will hit longtime employees, many of whom are making $13 to $14 an hour, plus benefits. That's a middle-class job in Poplar Bluff, where the median income is just over $31,000 a year.
Trump campaigned on “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He promised to be the “greatest jobs producer God ever created.” He and his team regularly argue that the tariffs are going to save jobs and even bring jobs back from overseas. But the vast majority of economists and business leaders have warned that many more jobs are likely to be lost than saved.
The Tax Foundation predicts 48,585 job losses from the tariffs Trump has already enacted on imports of washing machines, solar panels, steel, aluminum and $50 billion in Chinese products. That figure would soar to over 250,000 job losses if Trump moves forward with tariffs on another $200 billion of Chinese products, the Tax Foundation said.
Predicting the outcome of a trade war is difficult. The overall U.S. economy is unlikely to fall into a recession because of this, most economists say, but it’s likely to curtail growth a bit as companies hold off on hiring more workers or building new factories. And some parts of the country are likely to be hit hard. Europe, Canada, Turkey and China are targeting their tariffs at towns that voted for Trump.
Supporters of Trump’s tariffs point out that the protectionist moves have yielded job gains. Nearly 4,700 American jobs have been created since the steel and aluminum tariffs went into effect; for example, U.S. Steel announced it would restart blast furnaces in Illinois. Many of these positions are union jobs that come with $60,000 salaries and benefits.
“Idled steel and aluminum capacity is being restarted as we sit here,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said at a Senate hearing last week.
But the situation in Missouri is a warning sign of how the tariffs are helping some workers and harming others, and that's tricky politics for Trump, who looks as though he is picking winners and losers.
Workers in New Madrid County, Mo., are celebrating as Magnitude 7 Metals is restarting an aluminum product line, giving 450 workers back their jobs. But just an hour away in Poplar Bluff, 500 workers could be out of a job by the end of the summer.
The president’s focus has been on saving jobs that make raw steel and aluminum, but there are many more jobs that are harmed by the tariffs because they turn raw metal into something else, such as a car or airplane. The longer the tariffs are in place, the more companies are likely to have to make cuts.
Experts have warned Trump that the tariffs are likely to cause more job losses than jobs saved, and the early signs of that are starting to play out in small towns south of St. Louis
As the job losses mount, so may the pressure on Trump.