Enforcing the Rule of Trade Law

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

My union, the United Steelworkers (USW), and three paper manufacturers will have free traders and editorial boards across the nation sputtering, spitting and name calling again this week. 

They started labeling us protectionist” last week when President Obama made what should have been considered a straightforward decision. He implemented a recommendation from the independent, bi-partisan International Trade Commission (ITC) to place tariffs on tires imported from China. 

The USW had started that process by seeking sanctions in April under special trade safeguard rules, called Section 421, which the Chinese had agreed to obey to gain entrance to the World Trade Organization. 

Now we’ve filed a new trade case. We did it with no disrespect or lack of hospitality toward Chinese officials as they arrived in the city of our international headquarters – Pittsburgh – for the G‑20 summit. Proof of that is we included as a defendant in this case China’s fellow G‑20 country of Indonesia, who can keep them company in court. 

This is not a Section 421 but a more traditional unfair trade case about coated paper, the kind used for car brochures and annual reports. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Commerce found egregious dumping of this paper and improper subsidies by the Chinese and Indonesian governments. But later the ITC refused to impose sanctions because it decided the U.S. industry hadn’t been adequately injured. 

We believe we’ve suffered sufficiently now.

But we know the free traders and editorial boarders will vilify us. They’ve taken up with the Chinese government. And let me be clear that I mean government. 

The USW is in solidarity with Chinese and Indonesian workers who suffer abuse at the hands of their employers. It is governmental policies that injure us both and that we oppose. 

Our intent is to hold governments to promises they made to abide by international trade regulations – pledges sworn to gain entrance to the World Trade Organization. 

Those rules were meant to make free trade fair. 

We want fair trade. Geez. They’ll call us protectionist” for that – like they did with the tire tariff decision. The New York Times derided the tire tariff a protectionist remedy.” The Chicago Tribune slammed it as blatantly protectionist.” A Wall Street Journal columnist said Obama imposed the tariff, not because it was recommended by the ITC, but because the president owed favors to his friends in Big Labor.” 

These people don’t know what they are talking about. The New York Times, for example, said, China has not been competing unfairly on tires – just more effectively, mainly because of its far lower labor costs.” 

It is unfair trade to abuse workers by not paying them your own country’s minimum wage, by failing to give them your own country’s required days off and other benefits, by exposing them to grossly hazardous working conditions. Has the New York Times investigated the Chinese tire workers’ situation, the way it has other Chinese workers’, to determine if they are being mistreated in these ways like so many Chinese workers? If so, it provided no evidence.

In addition, just two paragraphs later, the Times lists numerous unfair trading practices it acknowledges China engages in, practices that give it unfair advantages when selling tires on the U.S. market, including manipulating its currency. Those advantages are far more significant to the price of tires than labor costs.

Similarly, the Chicago Tribune editorial was written by someone who apparently did precious little research. It claims the tire tariffs will cause whopping price hikes,” even though Charles Uthus, vice president of the Automotive Trade Policy Council, which opposed sanctions, calculated that the additional cost per tire, at the tariffs recommended by the ITC but later lowered by Obama, would be no more than $3.50.

The Tribune says the tariffs will not bring jobs back home – but the ITC determined they would. Best of all, the Tribune asserts that the tariffs will prompt manufacturers to move production from China to countries without tariffs. Really? Tariffs that will last only three years will prompt manufacturers to abandon plants that cost $180 million to build?

These people are in love with an ideal: Free trade. It doesn’t exist between the U.S. and China. The rules of free trade prohibit subsidizing exports, forcing foreign investors to transfer technology and mandating foreign manufacturers export all products made in the host country. China so routinely does such prohibited stuff that Cooper Tire provided sworn testimony about it in our Section 421 case. Cooper testified that China required Cooper to export all of the tires from its new Chinese plant for five years. 

China cheats. We’re just asking that they follow the rules they agreed to when they joined the World Trade Organization – the same sort of rules they will be discussing this week at the G‑20. That’s not protectionism. 

The free traders and the editorial boarders also belittled the tire case because none of the tire companies joined the USW. It should be obvious why companies like Cooper could not. And let’s make it clear, Goodyear, which has agreed to invest $600 million in its U.S. plants, made a point of remaining neutral. 

In the paper case, the free traders are going to have to choke back that scorn. Three manufacturers are in it with us: Appleton Coated LLC, NewPage Corp., and Sappi Fine Paper North America . Two of them, Sappi and NewPage, have been forced to close plants in the two years since the ITC didn’t see enough damage in the U.S. market to impose sanctions in 2007. Those shut downs cost nearly 1,000 workers their jobs and severely injured the mill towns of Muskegon, Mich., and Kimberly, Wis. 

Don’t just take my word, the word of someone who the Wall Street Journal would dismiss as protectionist Big Labor,” owed a big favor by President Obama. Listen to what businessmen have to say about China and Indonesia: 

This is John Cappy, president and CEO of Appleton, Our goal is to restore fair competition to the marketplace. We are willing to compete with anyone on a fair playing field.”

Here is Rick Willett, president and CEO of NewPage talking about China, What we want here is simply enforcement of the rules they signed on to in order to be part of the World Trade Organization.”

And, finally, there’s Mark Gardner, president and CEO of Sappi, who explains that his company clearly believes in free trade because it imports paper made in its European mills to the United States as well as manufacturing paper here: We want the laws enforced so we can compete on a fair basis.”

Hey, Wall Street Journal, how about those CEOs?

Leo Gerard is international president of the United Steelworkers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union miner; Gerard started working at a nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appointed the seventh international president Feb. 28, 2001. For more information about Gerard, visit usw​.org.
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