Trump Officials Tout Steel Revitalization, But Local Picture Is Mixed

Oct 11, 2019

Trump administration officials came to western Pennsylvania to hail the revitalization of the steel industry on Thursday. But they declined to cite local examples of where exactly that reinvestment has created new jobs.

“This is what President Trump is all about,” said White House trade policy advisor Peter Navarro of his visit to the North American Forgemasters complex in New Castle, Pa. “These are good jobs, good wages for the American people.”

Navarro was joined by U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, a Butler County Republican who represents the area. The group toured the complex, a joint venture in which locally based Ellwood Quality Steels supplies raw material for forging.

Navarro, who has long espoused protectionist trade policies, said manufacturing had benefited from the Trump Administration's tariffs on imported metals.

“We’re seeing tremendous investment in the U.S. steel and aluminum industry,” Navarro said. “We’re really proud of what’s going on in our steel and aluminum industry. Remember, without those steel tariffs ... the aluminum industry was about to go extinct, and the steel industry was really on life support.”

But the administration’s trade policies have sometimes been double-edged, with some local producers wishing they’d been included in the policies, and others wishing they’d been left out.

Mike Kamnikar, president of North American Forgemasters, said the administration did not include tariff protection for the products made in New Castle. That, he said, has made it difficult to compete with foreign producers.

“That’s a little bit of a hole in the tariff structure that was very disappointing,” he said. “That means we’re not getting as much work as we’d like to, because of unfair trade practices particularly by Italian, Korean and German forge shops. They’re selling forgings into the U.S. at ridiculous prices.”

“That has hurt some of our customers, so we’ve lost some business,” agreed David Barensfeld, chairman of the Ellwood Quality Steels board. He said that's cost the company millions of dollars annually, and employment at the firm has been flat. Still, he said, "We strongly support the overall tariff plan.”

Meanwhile, another area producer has laid off more than 80 employees, citing the administration’s tariffs. Russian-owned NLMK imports steel slabs from Russia and converts them to steel coil in Farrell, Pa. But it says it has had to pay $160 million in tariffs, as it was unable to purchase the slabs domestically.

Industry observers say that in any case, much of the region has moved on from its dependence on metals manufacturing.

“The competitiveness of steel in Pittsburgh is a big part of our history,” said University of Pittsburgh regional economist Chris Briem. “But it’s just that: a big part of history.”

Briem focuses primarily on Pittsburgh and its surrounding counties, and says the steel industry has been on a decades-long downward trend.

“Really right now you’re talking about under 6,000 actual steel manufacturing jobs left in the region,” he said. “At the beginning of this century, there were more than 10,000 jobs here  -- just 15 years ago -- in steel making. If you went back 30 years, before the collapse of the steel industry, you were talking 100,000 steel-making jobs here in the region.”

Navarro deflected WESA’s questions about where that revitalization can be seen locally, instead citing the country’s low unemployment rate as a measure of success.

“We're working hard,” Navarro said. “Please remember that we're at the lowest rate of unemployment since man walked on the moon.”