PITTSBURGH – Steel workers and union leaders said President Bush's decision to lift tariffs (search) would undermine efforts to reshape the industry, but some executives said an improving world economy would limit the impact.
The unions said a proposed monitoring program to guard against a glut of foreign steel — a consolation from President Bush who lifted the tariff under threat of a trade war — would not be enough for companies in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia to stay competitive.
"They're basically being kicked right in the face now for all the hard work they've done, and I think it's a disgrace," said Andy Miklos, 53, a heavy equipment operator and Local 1557 president at U.S. Steel-owned Clairton Coke Works, south of Pittsburgh.
Workers and union leaders vowed to back the Democratic opposition in the 2004 presidential election.
"Our union will now work very hard to make sure George W. Bush joins the ranks of the unemployed next year," said Mark Glyptis, president of the 3,000-member Independent Steelworkers Union (search) at West Virginia's bankrupt Weirton Steel Corp. (search)
Weirton's chief executive officer, Leonard Wise, said that, while the company would have preferred the tariffs continue into 2005, lifting them now won't be devastating because the world economic climate has improved since last year.
"This will ease any negative effects of losing the tariffs," said Wise. "We thank President Bush for providing the tariffs for the past 20 months. They have helped our industry."
The tariffs helped raise the price of foreign-made steel, and that made other international markets more attractive to foreign producers than the U.S. market, Wise said. Improvements in both the U.S. economy and those of other nations also increased the global demand for steel.
Steelworkers and industry officials lobbied hard for Bush to keep a 20-month old tariff that had been imposed to give the domestic industry critical time to modernize.
When Bush stopped in Pittsburgh, known as "Steel City," on Tuesday for a campaign fund-raiser, he was urged by the chairman and CEO of U.S. Steel Corp. (search) to support the industry as steelworkers demonstrated outside.
Facing stiff competition from foreign companies, which have cheaper labor costs and more modern equipment, the U.S. steelmaking business has been undergoing painful reforms, as several companies go through bankruptcy or consolidate with others. The industry complains that some foreign companies "dump" their steel at below cost on the U.S. market.
In a statement, the president said the tariff had done its job in helping protect the industry while it made changes. The tariffs were originally scheduled to remain in effect for three years, until 2005.
Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers of America (search), called the lifting of the tariffs a "canary in the mineshaft" for all American industries. His union has endorsed Democrat Dick Gephardt for president.
"I worry about steel, auto, textile, computer, aerospace. The political message is don't expect us to defend industrial America," Gerard said.
The Bush decision sent a different message to Emil Kapluvka, 46, a dock worker at the Port of Cleveland, who was busy Thursday unloading coiled steel from Holland.
"We'd rather be loading U.S. steel than unloading foreign steel, but we've got to take what we can get," Kapluvka said. "It may mean bringing in more work for us, for truck drivers too, and for some jobs at various factories."
U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who had written and telephoned Bush several times to plea for the retention of the tariffs, said the administration should pressure foreign producers to limit subsidies to their steel industries.
"The WTO and the European Union could have helped solve the problem by focusing more on the unfair dumping of foreign steel on U.S. markets instead of threatening a trade war," she said.
Workers say they're nervous about how the industry will manage now and aren't sure if the improvements will be enough.
"Does this mean that somewhere along (Lake Michigan), another plant is going to suffer, is going to shut down? We don't know. What we do know is that if we had had the 36 months, all the plans that were put into place would have beared fruit," said Chuck Fordyce, 47, a steelworker at U.S. Steel in Gary, Ind.
Coke laborer Calvin Croftcheck said he continued faxing handwritten messages addressed to the president from union workers, their families and retirees even after another worker at Clairton works delivered the bad news.
"It was all for naught," Croftcheck said. "It was all very discouraging, very disheartening."