By Greg Godels and Ed Grystar
November 20, 2020
To its credit, the United Steelworkers union (USW) has lifted the living standards and working conditions of millions of workers. Birthed from the militant 1930s Steel Workers Organizing Committee and midwifed by hundreds of Communist and socialist organizers, the USW became a strong advocate of industrial unionism and one of the more progressive forces in US political life.
But with the Cold War and the purging or repression of its most militant members, the USW abandoned the class-confrontation approach of its early years for a partnership with capital. In place of exercising the strength and power of a united membership, the union leadership chose a partnership approach, negotiating contracts based upon the notion that the worker and the boss had a common interest.
In the contest of the early Cold war, capital accepted some concessions to labor to guarantee US labor’s loyalty to US foreign policy objectives. In return for US labor leaders policing domestic radicalism in the workplace and for international collaboration in fighting Communism, the bosses tacitly agreed to accept wage and benefit growth commensurate with rising productivity.
With the onset of the economic crisis in the 1970s and with the ruling class turning toward market fundamentalism, capital reneged on its part of the partnership, attacking labor with vengeance. The implicit partnership was dissolved by one side.
Unfortunately, the other side– organized labor (in this case, the USW)– clung to the partnership. Despite restructuring, downsizing, plant closures, and concession demands, the USW stood by the philosophy of cooperation, what their critics called “class collaboration.”
Since we can remember, one expression of this affinity with corporate bosses has taken the form of seeking protection from foreign competitors. From inviting workers to sledgehammer Toyotas to advocating for steel tariffs, the USW leadership has maintained that what is good for steel corporations doing business in the USA is good for USW members.
In recent years, the protectionist demand was at odds with the political mainstream, including the union’s putative ally, the Democratic Party. Since the rise of Thatcher/Carter/Reagan/Clintonism, unfettered free markets have been an ideological fixation of all the bourgeois parties and their policy makers, placing tariffs and other protectionist policies beyond the pale.
But in 2016, the USW leadership found their savior. Donald Trump rudely arrived to occupy the White House.
Moreover, he kept his promise in 2018 to impose restrictive tariffs on all the imported steel coming into the United States. Unfortunately for the USW and their bet on protectionism, the Trump tariffs failed to meet their expectations. As The Wall Street Journal reports: “With the expanded production, about 6,000 jobs were added to the U.S. steel industry’s workforce after tariffs started in 2018, according to the Census Bureau. By the end of 2019, though, those gains evaporated as steel demand and prices sank.” [my emphasis]
Authors Bob Tita and William Mauldin (Tariffs Didn’t Fuel Revival for American Steel, WSJ, 10-28-2020) add that: “Higher prices [initially] also made steel more expensive for manufacturers that buy it, leading to the loss of about 75,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs, according to a study released late last year by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.”
In addition, foreign steel makers secured punitive export tariffs in retaliation, further hurting domestic US manufacturing.
The lack of growth in demand for steel in the USA has forced domestic producers to seek exports of steel to markets outside the USA in search of profits, the same strategy practiced by the “foreign” competition.
A major component of Trump’s 2016 victorious campaign message which helped him secure votes in the Rust Belt was his promise of major investment to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs. It never got off the ground because it was based on the false notion that capitalists will invest in the public good. Things like fixing public schools, hospitals, water systems, pollution control, and building mass transit systems simply don’t offer returns to investors even though they will provide for the public good, boost steel production, and create tens of thousands of steelworker jobs.
Instead, Trump, true to his real, big-business agenda, pushed a major tax cut that actually reduced the revenue available for any public investment. Rather than drain the swamp, Trump drained the public coffers and offered the syrup of “public private partnerships” that were supposed to entice capitalists to invest. They never did.
Not to be outdone, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports that the Republican-controlled legislature of Pennsylvania has now taken this phony concept to its practical conclusion which will result in the proposed tolling of many bridges in Pennsylvania as a way of making the “partnership” work to increase state revenues. Rather than tax the wealth of billionaires and corporations to obtain necessary revenues to rebuild in the public interest, we instead have tax cuts for the rich and privatization of necessary networks and services.
Understandably, the US-based steel industry sought to garner greater market share through the tariff program. However, the USW leadership failed to acknowledge one of the more basic laws of capitalism: with tariff-induced prices soaring and foreign competition locked out, domestic capitalist enterprises were incentivized to engage in an orgy of expansion and production. As a result of this classic overproduction-induced crisis, prices collapsed and the industry withdrew, with layoffs and closed facilities. Prices for hot-rolled coiled sheet steel increased by nearly half to $920 a ton after the tariffs were imposed, but are now below their pre-tariff level.
The advocates of tariffs as a remedy for layoffs and stagnant or declining wages and benefits forget that capitalism runs on profits and not sharing the wealth. The Communist, socialist, and other militant trade unionists who founded the union understood this truth. They sought a union that would fight the corporations for a greater portion of those profits for the workers.
Today’s leadership of the USW mistakenly believes that workers will benefit if “our” corporations are favored over “theirs.” They fantasize a world where foreigners are rapacious cheaters and US producers are inspired by the greater good. “Theirs” are driven by ruthless competition, while “ours” are committed to fairness and partnership. Lurking beneath the rhetoric is a not-too-subtle national chauvinism.
Surely, the experience with the Trump tariffs reveals that the protectionist approach not only slanders foreigners, but fails to protect domestic production, jobs, and compensation. Domestic producers, like their foreign counterparts, are ruled by the laws of motion of the capitalist system. Bust follows boom, whether it applies to a protected national market or a global unfettered market.
The union’s reliance on this cooperative approach with the steel corporations defangs it for the necessary independent political action program that could unite the membership and the general public in a fight for jobs and investment in decaying infrastructure. All research shows that this is a real path forward to create steel demand and union jobs. It’s plain to see and many studies document that America’s infrastructure is in horrible shape. Tariffs have not increased domestic demand for steel. The only way to increase domestic steel production is through a massive reinvestment program that not only rebuilds the decaying American infrastructure in the public interest but creates steelworker jobs.
Rather than casting their fate with their privately owned corporate rivals for the wealth created by the workers, unions should fight those rivals for a greater share. If they want to guarantee jobs, security, and compensation, they should struggle to eliminate the private corporations altogether. A real fighting union would be for public ownership of the steel industry.