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Whose Steel? | The Nation

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Whose Steel?

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"Our message [to international steelworkers] is 'Go ahead, compete with me. And if you win, you win. But if you can't compete, don't export your unemployment.'"
      --Dave McCall, director, USWA District 1, Ohio

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JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Rhetoric notwithstanding, Bush's steel tariffs coupled with the recent farm bill exemplifies what this country's trade policy has always been: for free trade in all the areas where it is strong, and against it in all those where it is weak. Although steelworkers said they just wanted "a level playing field," US-subsidized agribusiness has not defeated Filipino chicken farmers, Mexican corn growers and Jamaican dairymen on such a field. It is a mark of confusion among so-called globalization forces that when some union people, like McCall, spoke of tariffs, it was in the syntax of competition, whereas others identified with those Filipinos, Mexicans, Jamaicans--as if the line on globalization did not admit of differences between the imperial center and the margins, or between one kind of oppression and another. One worker spoke passionately about the ratcheting down of wages and then said, apropos LTV's bankruptcy, "This is about the Salvadoran woman sewing T-shirts for $3 a day."

For the most part, it's not even about foreign steelworkers making $3 a day. The biggest exporter to the United States by product value is Canada, which is exempt from the tariffs under NAFTA. The tariffs come down hardest on Europe, South Korea and Japan. Although tariffs could be justified as a sanction against Russia and Ukraine for "subsidizing" steel by allowing workers to toil without pay for six months or longer, the political context of the crisis does not seem to have been part of the union's education efforts. How Russia got into its situation was not a subject among most workers I met. Nor was the origin of the 1997 Asian financial collapse, which resulted in currency devaluations throughout the region and aggressive steel production, even amid excess, to amass dollars. Nor even was America's failure to guarantee healthcare for all of its people, or the necessity, simply because steelmaking requires fewer and fewer workers, to imagine a shorter workweek without loss of pay, transitional income supports or guaranteed income, education and retraining that have a future, or occupations not yet dreamed of.

Most tariff opponents, from left to right, have been no more inspiring. Those who argue that America doesn't really "need" steel, like the editorialists who said Cleveland had grown out of it, discount all the complicated ways that need is constructed in towns and cities whose landscape and culture have grown up around the mills. Beyond that, like the steelworkers but in a different way, they trust in trade solutions. One leftish journalist who writes on these matters told me casually that it's nonsense for America to produce steel, that so long as there was some means of protecting the jobless, trade could insure a ready supply of the product and provide a redistributive benefit to poor exporters at the same time.

The problem is that the world is not a sodality of equal trading nations. Greater US dependence on steel imports, which currently account for about 20 percent of the market, would no more make it so than tinkering with the terms of trade. Among all the arguments I heard either to save steel or let it die, the clearest summation of the dialectic of power and production came from Charlie McCollester, who worked at Union Switch and Signal in Pittsburgh until its plant closed in 1986. "If you're a superpower and you don't produce things," he said, "then you need to control production. You need to control the market. Basically, you need to control the world, or try to. It comes down to imperialism."

For anyone who agrees with him but, like him, rejects the nativist position, the question, then, is produce for what? The world already has a glut of steel. "It's not so complicated really," says Kjeld Jakobsen, international relations secretary of the CUT, the Brazilian labor federation. "You need an industrial policy, and we need an industrial policy. We have a tremendous need for housing. We have almost no railroad. There is a big need for public transport. All of these things require steel. And you have similar needs. There is a market for everyone. The question is how can we help each other press our respective governments to develop national policies, which could involve a subsidy or not, to invest in social needs, local needs?"

Dennis Kucinich was sounding a similar note back in Cleveland. Although keen to political opportunity--the Congressman had stumped vigorously for tariffs--he said a long-term solution lay in changing the market for steel, creating a different kind of demand via a national industrial policy. "What you'd need," he said, pulling out paper and pen, "is a series of acts. First, let's call it the National Industrial Maintenance Act, which declares it the policy of the United States to maintain steel, automotive, aerospace, machine tools. Basically, it says if the private sector does not maintain investment in manufacturing capability, the public sector will have to. So you look at manufacturing almost as a utility. That addresses the ownership question." The rest of his list included an infrastructure act, already introduced as HR 1564, establishing a federal bank for financing rebuilding projects to the tune of $50 billion a year; a full-employment act; a national healthcare act; an act repealing sections of NAFTA and GATT that limit state economic interventions; an act to foster the development of new industries aimed at rebuilding the environment ("you could call it the National Employment and Ecology Sustainability Act"); an act to guarantee free college education and another to inspire creativity and the arts; a work-hour and living-wage act.

When he finished Kucinich said, "What does all of this get back to?" and on the page he wrote NATION in large capitals, "one for all and all for one." From Brazil, Jakobsen looked past frontiers. Worldwide, the steel industry is restructuring, and jobs are being lost. Worldwide, old patterns of production are unsustainable socially and environmentally, and global trade or financial regimes limit a people's options. Worldwide, there is talk of solidarity, but a model of global unionism--as revolutionary a shift in labor organizing as industrial unionism was from the craft guilds--has yet to be developed. Worldwide, people need alternatives, better work, less work, better services, more leisure, more say. "Obviously," he concluded, "there is room for the big idea."

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