President Trump promised that his tariffs on imported steel would revitalize U.S. steel producers, but the policy has had the opposite effect for some mills in Western Pennsylvania. In the steel town of Farrell, for example, workers at NLMK USA are living through drastic work reductions.
"The economy just isn’t there,” said Jim Wells, unit president for USW Local 101603 at NLMK. He said he hasn’t really seen the revitalization the Trump administration touts.
“There’s not a lot I can really say about that.”
Wells is an electrician on the pickle line, where steel is treated to remove impurities. He represents about 430 union steelworkers, and said about half of his membership has gone through an on-again off-again layoff process.
“We’ve had a couple different layoffs here recently because of business conditions being slow,” he said. “A week layoff – that means they’re laid off for the week, but yet there’s enough business that you can actually bring them back for another week, it all depends on the business and the orders.”
For years, NLMK bought steel slab from overseas and converted it to steel coil in Pennsylvania, which is used for household appliances like refrigerators. But the Trump administration’s tariffs on imported steel made that business model much more expensive. NLMK lost $160 million in 2018 alone.
Companies hurt by the tariffs can request an exemption, but the process takes a long time and there’s no guarantee a company get one. NLMK asked to be exempt from tariffs on 85 products and the government denied every request.
In order to get an exemption, a company must show that it can’t get the steel from a U.S. producer. Other producers said they had the steel NLMK needed. But that doesn't mean those producers are obliged to sell the product -- and NLMK officials say that other domestic steel makers often refuse to sell steel to potential competitors.
“This trade war and tariffs that's going back and forth isn’t helping anybody,” said Wells, who is critical of all of the administration’s tariffs and the trade war in its entirety. He said the layoffs have made job security a big concern for his union members.
“Everybody’s frustrated over it all,” he said. “And now the whole economy’s slowed down and one week you’re laid off the next you’re not. They’re worried. They’re definitely worried about it and there’s nothing that we can tell them right at this point in time that can help change any of that.”
Wells acknowledges that this has happened before: Business also slowed down in the 2008 recession.
“The steel industry has always been an up-and-down industry,” he said. “[In 2008] we slowed down, then everything picked back up and we were back to doing it again six or seven days a week, working all the time. Now here we are again, the economy’s slow and everything’s slowed down again.”
Farrell is in Mercer County, which voted for Trump by more than 20 percentage points. Wells wouldn’t comment on whether the administration’s trade policy has impacted his union members’ opinions of the President. But he did have a message for the Trump administration and policy makers.
“Make the tariffs go away and actually put things back to the way they were, so everybody ain’t gotta worry about their jobs,” Wells said. “Quit with the trade war and let’s go back to doing things the way we’re supposed to.”