BALTIMORE – Hundreds of workers rallied with state and federal elected officials at the United Steelworkers union hall Wednesday, demanding a 40 percent tariff on cheap foreign steel that they say is threatening their livelihood.
President Bush has until March 6 to act on the International Trade Commission’s recommendation for the tariff. A White House spokeswoman would only say Wednesday that Bush is conferring with all sides in the dispute and will “review the results as expeditiously as possible.”
Meanwhile, the United Steelworkers is mobilizing an army of union members and elected officials to pressure the president.
“Standing up for Steel is Standing up for America,” said Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md.
“How can you be a leading industrial country, if you don’t have a strong steel industry? Can you imagine being the world’s leading superpower, called upon to use your military strength to resolve controversies in one place or another without having a steel industry upon which to base our strength?” Sarbanes asked.
Steelworkers claim that illegal foreign trade is largely responsible for driving 30 American steel companies into bankruptcy since 1997, causing 15 to shut down and wiping out more than 46,000 jobs.
One of those companies is Bethlehem Steel Corp., the nation’s second- largest integrated steel producer, which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company’s Sparrows Point division in Baltimore employs 3,500 workers, down from 30,000 in 1957.
“Steelworkers at Sparrows Point, the largest single employer in Baltimore for decades, helped shape the city and the state of Maryland,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. “Steelworkers have supported us, and now we have to support them.”
But not all agree that a tariff on steel imports is in the best interest of the U.S. steel industry.
A December study by the Consuming Industries Trade Action Coalition claims that a tariff as low as 20 percent would cost 74,502 jobs in the steel-consuming industry, like agriculture, retail, banking, transportation and other sectors. Such a tariff would only save 8,900 steel-industry jobs in exchange, the study claimed.
“Import relief is not the answer,” said Paul Nathanson, a spokesman with the American Institute for International Steel, a Washington-based trade association working to promote free trade.
“Domestically it’s going to be lost jobs. Internationally there is going to be a trade war,” if Bush imposes any tariff, Nathanson said.
He and other critics claim that U.S. steel mills are struggling because of competition for mini-mills and outdated technology, among other problems.
“There are too many weak companies who cannot make a profit even in the best of times,” said Nathanson, adding that there needs to be consolidation of some American mills.
Such academic arguments don’t carry much weight with Gina Polanowski, a mother of three whose husband works at Sparrows Point. She was on hand for Wednesday’s rally with her children, who brought a homemade poster that urged Bush to “Save my future!”
“Everything depends on Bush’s decision,” said Polanowski. “I hope he does the right thing.”