Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO.
Wall Street’s hair is on fire about steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by President Trump, because closing mills and factories in the United States and moving them overseas is how investors enrich themselves.
And those wealthy investors reap even fatter profits when offshore mills and factories violate trade laws. Wall Street doesn’t care about the social and economic costs of unfair trade, because working people and our communities pay the price.
We care about working people and our jobs, and we care about holding bad actors accountable. That’s why the AFL-CIO has consistently made the case for the use of tariffs to crack down on trade law violations. In the case of steel and aluminum, it’s not just about unfair trade practices, it’s also about national security.
This isn’t about Trump. And it certainly isn’t about partisan politics. Many in both parties have failed working people on the issue of trade. The politicians who are screaming about a trade war have one thing in common: They are beholden to Wall Street.
The real trade war is being waged directly on working people — our jobs, our communities, our way of life. We’ve been getting our butts kicked for decades because the rules allow global companies to profit at our expense rather than letting us rise together. It’s a rigged game. Just take a drive through my small coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania if you want proof.
When American workers compete on a level playing field, we win. Tariffs are one important step to help us do exactly that.
How does that work? To understand, you first have to recognize these basic facts:
Wall Street CEOs and powerful billionaires have rigged our economic rules to protect and maximize their profits. Their trade rules boost outsourcing, labor exploitation and environmental degradation — cutting the legs out from under working people and our communities. Trade has become, like tax cuts and austerity, a primary weapon in CEOs’ war on workers.
Since 2000, global overcapacity in steel and unfair trade practices by China have been a main cause of the closure or idling of more than half of America’s basic steel furnaces and the loss of more than one-third of steel jobs. The onslaught has been so aggressive, and so unfair, that the entire American steel industry has had a net loss of income since 2009.
This is not fair trade or normal competition. American steel mills, for instance, are more efficient than Chinese mills. The Chinese mills only gained their edge thanks to extra support from Beijing in the form of subsidies. China produces an excessive amount of steel and aluminum, which has been dumped in the global market, hurting not just the United States but countries around the world.
The most common tool to counteract such illegal tactics is a tariff. For the decade ending in 2005, governments around the world put in place nearly 1,700 anti-dumping tariffs. The United States imposed 219. The European Union imposed 193. India imposed 302. In 2014, President Barack Obama imposed steel tariffs on nine countries.
Tariffs are a normal tool of trading partners, not the opening shots in a trade war. These tariffs will be most effective if used strategically, targeting China and other countries that are the source of the problem. In fact, instead of retaliating against the United States, as some have threatened, our allies should work together with us to address this global glut that threatens all our economic and national security.
The wild-eyed defense of trade violations by the titans of Wall Street is about greed and profits, not about doing right by America’s economy or the people who make it go. They are trying to make us panic so they can keep their fat bonuses.
What working families really need is a wholesale rewrite of global trade rules. We need new rules that will help build a fair and sustainable economy — rules that don’t put more importance on profits than on our communities. We’re working to create those new rules in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In the meantime, in the context of years of inaction by the U.S. government and our trading partners, these tariffs are a necessary first step and we are proud to support them.