Trump’s steel tariffs: For the workers or the steel bosses?
President Donald Trump, posing with workers, signs the proclamation on steel imports. | Susan Walsh / AP

President Donald Trump’s imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs has sparked debate among labor leaders, union activists, and progressives. Questions about the effectiveness of the tariffs as a policy and about Trump’s political motivations have resulted in a variety of opinions. The article below is one of several analyses and commentaries that People’s World will publish on the topic. The views represented here are those of the author.

“Tariffs! I want tariffs! Where are my tariffs!” Like a toddler screaming for his Count Chocula breakfast, Trump has been wandering the White House halls demanding tariffs, big tariffs, big plans for tariffs. To be fair, it is the only thing he has been consistent on for 50 years: a belief in tariffs as protection for American business (note that view hasn’t been focused on protection of workers, if you look at his own financial dealings).

He believes the manufacturing world revolves around steel and that Pittsburgh is still a coal-choked cloud of steel foundries rather than a modernized tech center.

In finally imposing tariffs of 25 percent on foreign steel and 10 percent on aluminum in those publicity-oriented White House presentations involving both his cabinet and steel workers March 8, Trump was signing a commitment still short on details. Bowing to pressure from all sides, he exempted—but didn’t say for how long—Mexico and Canada, which even USW President Leo Gerard has defended as fair players.

Trump also promised exemptions for other countries, if they come to him hat in hand to make their case in the next 15 days. Now just imagine how that is going over in Europe, where Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey, and Sweden still control a lot of factors related to steel production. If you look to India and other countries, the line between friends and foes is further blurred—and neither the president nor the public is sure they know the villains from the good guys at this point.

Ours is the land of dumping—the U.S. market is often the repository for steel and aluminum material that costs far less for many of these foreign actors to produce, given their wage and environmental concerns (or lack thereof). Several are not their own producers but unheralded pass-throughs for China’s bulging superiority in resources.

China is the chief villain in the Trump tariff story. China also represents hookups with other countries that benefit by taking down U.S. steel. Americans are still learning who is who in the labyrinthine network of global supply, demand, and middlemen. Even American-based companies may be the bad actors and so may be some allies.

Trump’s approach will throw open the government doors to hired lobbyists for every country—the exact opposite of draining the swamp. Line up, folks! Who will get a break from bad boy Trump?

This is only one specter behind the worries that Trump is launching a trade war.

In TV interviews, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka calls that fear an exaggeration and offers a convincing reminder. The U.S. already has multiple tariffs in other fields—nowhere near as big as what Trump has put forward, but it is standard practice, and no one has screamed trade war.

True enough, but there are is also recent history, as well as innumerable threats and arguments, to suggest that in our undisciplined Trump world the scale of these tariffs could backfire.

Reagan tried “quotas” to slow foreign steel imports in 1984. His cabinet, like Trump’s now, was sharply divided.

Clinton, Bush, and Obama attempted tariffs—some of them huge—and were either overridden or overruled by pressure. Even some union leaders at the time sought (again, like some do now) a more precise approach since tariffs were viewed as too blunt an instrument.

But the affected manufacturing unions see their industries and ranks decimated and thus are in no mood for historical discussions about the inevitability of automation. Dumping they can do something about—with tariffs. They’ve been disappointed severely in the past, so when Trump comes along and uses the word “globalists” as a pejorative, he finds a friendly audience.

The worries about trade wars are real to many, though, especially after European Union Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem listed U.S. products that would immediately be vulnerable if the EU decided to counterattack: bourbon, peanut butter, orange juice, cranberries, and Harley Davidson motorcycles. Those last two are particularly scary here in Wisconsin.

Trumka thinks a trade war is far-fetched but the talk clearly worries the motorcycle icon since 16 percent of its sales are in Europe. “Import tariffs on steel and aluminum will drive up costs for all products made with these raw materials, regardless of their origin,” the company said. “Additionally, a punitive, retaliatory tariff on Harley Davidson motorcycles in any market would have a significant impact on our sales.”

The Senate’s most ardent and longest advocate for steel tariffs, Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, praised Trump’s move but emphasized, “I would have done it differently.”

The sense of unease over the tariffs is not so much about tariffs themselves but, frankly, the involvement of Trump. How his ego is played or rebuffed could have an outsized role in world economics at a time when he has made China and other countries glad to see the U.S. falter. His administration is fully capable of punching holes in the Good Ship Tariff all on its own.

So it is with caution that Trumka and Gerard of USW speak like they finally agree with Trump…at least on this. What’s harder for them to address in interviews is the attitude of their members toward Trump. Despite their unions’ natural affinity for Democrats, voter analysis and attendance at rallies suggest they have members who find something strong, not erratic in Trump’s plunging ahead, and that could be part of why they voted for him in the first place.

Said one union Trump voter I spoke to, “Even if he’s grabbed a good idea ten years too late, he grabbed it, and that was more than Obama did.”

Still, it’s time to look hard at that Trump grabbiness. His understanding of tariffs seems more a remnant of his youth in the 1960s and more a tactic than a thought-through strategic approach to the economy. Neither Wall Street nor the unions are certain how this will play out day-to-day or even what Trump may do tomorrow.

Both Trumka and Gerard sigh for more targeted tariffs that really attack the thieves—and the dumpers of cheaper-made steel and aluminum are not the only thieves. They also include U.S. and multinational companies that take full advantage of such savings in their supply chain and hence involve thousands of jobs. There are mom-and-pop businesses that do the same. While some think Trump is providing powerful motives for the businesses to stay home—“build with U.S. materials”—the tariffs they escape may not be the deciding factor. There may be other advantages of going offshore—especially since the scope or even the purposes of the tariffs are still being decided.

Several union leaders I spoke with worry these are tariffs from a “president who wants to protect the industry, not the worker.” Former iron worker Randy Bryce, one of the Democrats seeking to oust Paul Ryan from his House perch, asked on MSNBC: “Who is this being done for—the American worker? No.” Bryce then likened the American worker to “just another poker chip” in the Trump arsenal.

A union leader who supports the tariffs but hates Trump joked that “even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.”

Said another: “Think of the number of good ideas that Trump has fouled up.” He was citing confusion over DACA and gun control—issues many feel the president’s involvement set back.

Real change comes from legislation, and so far there has been no word on that from the White House. For movement, you have to turn to Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, whose first Buy American effort was blocked by the GOP because they didn’t want any Democrat to look good.

Well, it’s now back in force with co-sponsors—Buy American legislation that would require U.S. steel in American infrastructure. The tariffs don’t do that. And without Baldwin’s rules for infrastructure, the taxpayers will absorb the difference.

That’s why Baldwin wants legislation that puts the Jaws of Life around Buy American, not that leaky tariff barge.



Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.