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'Make our industry stronger’: Steelworkers warn Biden against lifting tariffs

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CONSHOHOCKEN, Pa. — The century-old steel processing plant in this Philadelphia suburb stretches three-quarters of a mile along the shores of the Schuylkill River. An imposing complex of black-walled buildings, it can churn out a half-million tons of steel per year when operating at full capacity.

But years of tepid demand for American-made steel have diminished the mill, which is most known for producing high-strength steel the military needs in wartime. Kameen Thompson, the president of the local United Steelworkers union, says the plant is now hiring workers and anticipating fresh investment largely due to a pivotal policy: former President Donald Trump’s tariffs on foreign-made steel and aluminum.

Those controversial duties are still in effect and creating a political quagmire for President Joe Biden. Most business groups detest them as an unnecessary financial burden as they grapple with supply-chain shortages and rising inflation.

The European Union wants the tariffs gone, too, and is ramping up pressure on Biden to lift them. But scrapping the tariffs entirely, even for Europe, without installing alternative protections for U.S. steel producers risks angering union voters like Thompson ahead of the 2022 elections.

“I'm pretty sure that our union leadership is telling him the right thing to do is to make our industry stronger and better,” Thompson said in an interview. “If he goes against that, then it has to be a very good reason why.”

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai are trying to devise a trans-Atlantic plan to address the decades-long challenge of China undercutting domestic industries by pumping its excess steel into the global market at cheap prices. They face a self-imposed deadline to reach a deal by the end of the year.

As a result, some steelworkers are concerned that rushing into an agreement with Europe could come at the expense of domestic steel producers and their union workers, whose support for Biden in key swing states helped propel him to the White House.

“The Biden administration understands that simply lifting steel tariffs without any solution in place, particularly beyond the dialogue, could well mean layoffs and plant closures in Pennsylvania and in Ohio and other states where obviously the impact would be felt not only economically but politically,” said Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.

The political calculus for Biden

From his first days in office, Biden has sought to dismantle many of his predecessor's policies toward the world beyond U.S. borders. He’s put particular emphasis on reasserting the U.S. as a global force keen to collaborate with — not chastise — like-minded nations on policies ranging from climate change to global health.

But he hasn’t touched Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, and members of his Cabinet have gone so far as to praise them. Pressure from unions is a key reason why.

Ultimately, Biden must decide whether the good of the few — the 137,200 or so steel and ironworkers in the country last year — outweighs the good of the many — 6.5 million workers, by one estimate, who need steel or aluminum for the goods they make. A number of economists warn that steel tariffs could imperil more jobs than they preserve.

“On one level, the steelworkers don't represent a huge number of voters because there's just not that many of them, but they are important voters in important states,” said Todd Tucker, director of governance studies at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive-leaning think tank.

“If you look at the geography of where steel production is most prevalent, it's in a few congressional districts in Ohio, Pennsylvania and a few other places that are going to be important, certainly in presidential years, but some Senate races in 2022,” Tucker added.

Biden’s blue-collar roots........

© Politico

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