Tariffs Aren’t the Best Way To Protect U.S. Steelworkers. Global Solidarity Is.

Katy Fox-Hodess

Brazilian steelworkers hold signs reading, “Trump, get your claws out of our jobs” in a protest against the U.S. steel tariffs outside the U.S. Consulate in Săo Paulo March 5. (Cris Faga/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The enthu­si­asm with which the AFL-CIO and Unit­ed Steel­work­ers (USW) greet­ed Trump’s announce­ment of a glob­al tar­iff on steel and alu­minum exports rais­es sig­nif­i­cant ques­tions about the U.S. labor movement’s com­mit­ment to inter­na­tion­al solidarity.

The USW has a strong record of inter­na­tion­al­ism. Not only does the USW rep­re­sent work­ers in Cana­da, like many U.S. unions, but it has long sup­port­ed Los Mineros — one of only a small hand­ful of mil­i­tant, inde­pen­dent trade unions in Mex­i­co — and has dis­cussed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a merger.

The USW was also the first U.S.-based trade union to make the jump to Europe, in 2008, form­ing a transat­lantic orga­ni­za­tion with UNITE, the largest trade union in Britain and Ire­land. And through inter­na­tion­al cam­paigns in col­lab­o­ra­tion with glob­al union fed­er­a­tions (GUFs) like Indus­tri­ALL, which bring togeth­er trade unions from around the world, the USW has built strong rela­tion­ships from Ger­many to Brazil.

Trump’s tar­iffs ini­tial­ly tar­get­ed all of these coun­tries — and yet the USW and AFL-CIO embraced the plan (though the USW did call to omit Cana­da). Their glob­al allies were not pleased. The Cana­di­an union Uni­for issued a strong­ly word­ed state­ment argu­ing that the AFL-CIO’s posi­tion sold out the Cana­di­an mem­bers of its affil­i­ate unions. UNITE and Germany’s IG Met­all issued anti-tar­iff state­ments as well. Brazil’s major trade union fed­er­a­tions mount­ed a sig­nif­i­cant show of oppo­si­tion with a joint state­ment and street protests.

From the per­spec­tive of work­ers in the Glob­al South, Trump’s steel tar­iffs reflect­ed the actions of a pow­er­ful, wealthy coun­try seek­ing to main­tain its wealth and pow­er at the expense of poor coun­tries. Blue-col­lar work­ers in the Glob­al North, who often enjoy wages and ben­e­fits far supe­ri­or to those of the Unit­ed States, believe the Unit­ed States is already under­cut­ting their mar­kets with its anti-union environment.

Even­tu­al­ly, Trump exempt­ed Argenti­na, Aus­tralia, Brazil, Cana­da, Mex­i­co, South Korea and the mem­ber coun­tries of the Euro­pean Union. But the USW’s ini­tial reac­tion may have under­mined decades of glob­al coali­tion-build­ing work that is far more essen­tial than tar­iffs in the long term.

The USW pro­vides vital sup­port to trade union­ists work­ing under incred­i­bly adverse con­di­tions, direct­ly sup­port­ing allies in Mex­i­co, Liberia and Colom­bia, and par­tic­i­pat­ing in GUF cam­paigns to pres­sure multi­na­tion­als to sign glob­al agree­ments on labor standards.

But the USW’s inter­na­tion­al work also ben­e­fits its U.S. mem­bers. Dur­ing the Ravenswood alu­minum plant dis­pute in the 1990s and sub­se­quent dis­putes with Bridgestone/​Firestone and Ameristeel/​Geraud, trade union­ists from Europe to Latin Amer­i­ca to Asia pres­sured these multi­na­tion­al cor­po­ra­tions to help win strong agree­ments for the USW. In recent years, the USW has effec­tive­ly used glob­al agree­ments nego­ti­at­ed by Indus­tri­ALL to help resolve domes­tic con­tract disputes.

Pro­tec­tion­ist poli­cies under­mine this tra­di­tion of sol­i­dar­i­ty by false­ly push­ing a nar­ra­tive that fair com­pe­ti­tion” will raise labor stan­dards. In fact, mar­kets have nev­er been tru­ly open. The Unit­ed States has always prac­ticed selec­tive pro­tec­tion­ism — for exam­ple, of the corn indus­try, which led to the wide­spread immis­er­a­tion of Mex­i­can corn farm­ers after NAF­TA — not to men­tion myr­i­ad oth­er forms of con­trol exert­ed over coun­tries in the Glob­al South, from with­hold­ing devel­op­ment aid to loan conditionalities.

Tar­iffs will do noth­ing to improve labor rights or work­ing con­di­tions for work­ers in Chi­na, and may per­verse­ly result in a greater squeeze on labor as exporters look to cut costs.

And if for­eign work­ers were to be laid off or squeezed as a result of the tar­iffs, how like­ly will they be to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with us in the future?

Trade unions should think care­ful­ly about oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly revert­ing to nation­al­ism when polit­i­cal open­ings arise. As the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal union put it, Amer­i­can work­ers need … a trade and indus­tri­al pol­i­cy that is based on inter­na­tion­al coop­er­a­tion, respect for work­ers’ rights and envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty — one that rais­es liv­ing stan­dards for work­ers across indus­tries and across bor­ders through invest­ment in infra­struc­ture, jobs and social programs.”

Katy Fox-Hodess is a lec­tur­er in work, employ­ment, peo­ple and orga­ni­za­tions at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sheffield. Her research exam­ines inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty among dock­work­ers’ unions.
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