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Some Unions Concerned About Steel Tariffs


Day after day, the United States and Canada do about $1.5 billion worth of business. Some of that cross-border business is in steel and aluminum. Canada is the top exporter of both those metals to the United States. So many Canadians were alarmed when President Trump announced plans to impose tariffs on imported aluminum and steel. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered some reassurance.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: There are potential car routes for Mexico and Canada based on national security, and possibly other countries, as well.

INSKEEP: But nobody knows exactly what the president will sign. So we've called Ken Neumann, the Canadian national director of the United Steelworkers union. Welcome to the program.

KEN NEUMANN: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are your members thinking about these tariffs?

NEUMANN: Well, we're very much concerned. It has been a bit of a roller coaster. You know, we have 22,000 direct steel jobs in Canada, which indirect, there are another 120,000. So these are all good middle-class jobs. And we've always had a long history in the U.S. in regards to the integrated market, as you started the show saying that $1.5 billon cross our borders every single day. And this, in fact, could disrupt that longstanding process. And we've always been a good neighbor, and we've lobbied hard with Leo Gerard and others to say that, look, Canada should be exempt, that we're not the bad actors.

INSKEEP: Well, this raises an interesting question because you are part of the AFL-CIO, the U.S.-based labor organization. And I wonder if it's awkward for you that that organization is supporting these tariffs.

NEUMANN: Well, I think that there's a misconception of - I know Richard Trumka's come out and welcomes the news of trying to get rid of the cheaters and the bad actors and has basically decimated a lot of the global - you know, the North American industry, not just in the U.S. and Canada. He's not said at any point - matter of fact, I know he's confirmed that he does not support - he does not see Canada as a bad actor and Canada should not be included in those tariffs.

INSKEEP: Trumka, we should mention, is the head of the AFL-CIO, so the head of your organization.

NEUMANN: That's correct. Yes. I know him very well. So he's not for a moment suggesting that he may support what President Trump is doing with respect to dealing with the cheaters, and, but surely, Canada is not included in that, and he has so said.

INSKEEP: But this creates a complicated situation because the president wants to impose these tariffs. He'd like, he says, to target countries like China. The White House is at least open to the possibility of carving out Canada and countries that are more aligned with the United States. But on Tuesday, we were talking with Jesse Gary. He's with Century Aluminum here in the United States, and he was suggesting that a carve-out for Canada isn't going to work. Here's what he said.


JESSE GARY: What will happen is that if you just have targeted tariffs, what would happen is the aluminum trade flows would shift. And so what you'd see is, if Canada were to be excluded, people would just bring aluminum in through Canada, and/or those job gains and those restarts would actually occur in Canada rather than the United States.

INSKEEP: His bottom line is, you can't spare Canada without causing the tariffs to be completely ineffective for the United States. What's he missing?

NEUMANN: Well, I think what he's missing, the fact is that, you know, we're obviously concerned about the same concept that if you exclude Canada, which you should, it's the global cheaters that are going to try to find a home for their excess capacity, which has basically been driving down the prices, and that they're going to try to find a new home, and it's going to be up to our federal government to stand up and make sure that they shore up the ports in the border, that they don't allow this - the cheaters to come to Canada. So you need to have an enforcement mechanism to basically prevent that. So yes, I'm very cognizant of the fact that what happens once the U.S. puts these tariffs onto the cheaters and the manipulators that they're going to try to find a new home. They're not going to let their excess capacity sit in the boneyard and rust or whatever. They're going to try to find some place to dump it, and Canada could be a target.

INSKEEP: Well, thanks for pointing that out because then that becomes a real problem. It raises the question of whether tariffs can do anything other than make the global market less efficient. Because it is a global market for steel, prices are somewhat globally set, and aren't you going to continue to have a problem with Chinese steel no matter how the United States tries to exclude it, or Canada, for that matter?

NEUMANN: Well, I think that's really up to our governments. And I think you've got to look at is what's happening in North America. And I know that we're an international union. And the fact is that when are we going to stand up and look after the industries that are so important to national security? And Canada is not the problem, so therefore, it's crucially important. And I mean, we have a responsibility to - you know, for the next generation, as well. I mean, we're just not going to be able to compete with the bad actors and the cheaters. So I expect our government of Canada to stand up, and do what's right, and defend our jobs and defend our borders to make sure that the dumpers and cheaters don't come to this country.

INSKEEP: Mr. Neumann, thanks very much, really appreciate your time.

NEUMANN: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Ken Neumann is national director of the United Steelworkers union in Canada.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous headline incorrectly said that unions are divided over the steel tariffs. Some unions have concerns, but they say there is no division.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 8, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline incorrectly said that unions are divided over the steel tariffs. Some unions have concerns, but they say there is no division.