Trump may be impulsive, but he’s always stuck to his guns in insisting that everyone in the world is out to beat America on trade. So he followed through on his campaign promise on swiping at China with punitive steel and aluminum tariffs, allegedly to keep the world’s metal shop from “dumping” more of its cheap products on US markets.
The issue with Trump’s “trade war” is that international trade is not the zero-sum game that the administration suggests. Nor is global trade about the “all boats rise” narrative championed by free-marketeers (like his now-ousted economic adviser Gary Cohn). Whether you oppose or support the steel tariffs, Trump’s fixation on making the steel trade “fairer” has nothing to do with fairness for workers; it will at best lard the bottom line for a handful of US manufacturers.
Some context: In China, global export markets provided a boom in jobs as the country pursued hypertrophic industrial modernization over the past several decades. China’s manufacturing growth paralleled the steady decline of US steel and its workforce, but the once-stable unionized US jobs weren’t simply “shipped” across the Pacific. China’s state-owned steelworks and mega-factories have for years capitalized on lower wages and working standards, and its labor force certainly did not import middle-class American livelihoods.
Now, the dinosaurs of heavy industry, including yesteryear’s glorified steel mills, are downsizing in both China and the United States. If Washington wanted to reform trade policy to actually help restore decent jobs to American workers, the focus wouldn’t be on which country sells more steel to which. After all, the number of US jobs in industries that consume cheap steel eclipses those involved directly in steel production.
A progressive labor stance would actually focus the trade debate on labor justice. The corporations that benefit from Trump’s trade approach, according to Manuel Perez-Rocha, a researcher with the Institute for Policy Studies, are not concerned about the overall direction of trade or its impact on communities, but rather, their power to profit from cheap production abroad. “A more international approach to trade should be foremost analyzing how workers’ salaries and labor conditions improve or become a race to the bottom, as they have under deals like NAFTA, and how to reverse this.”
Workers who want to turn back economic regression should be wary of any trade policy full-throatedly endorsed by the National Association of Manufacturers. Yet many mainstream union leaders (including the steelworkers union representing both Canadian and US labor, which ironically now straddles both sides of the tariff war) are cheering the anti-China line. It’s a fight for the crumbs under a status quo of unsustainable growth.
Rather than vilify China as a job killer, workers in the United States should view them as part of a solidarity struggle, and understand the global impacts of the kind of unsustainable growth that China’s development reflects. There’s a reason the United States’ premier trade partner has never ratified international conventions on the right to assembly or collective bargaining. Although US workers are right to lament the loss of secure union jobs during the era of free trade, for their Chinese counterparts labor is “cheap” in large part because China’s industries remain rife with hazardous, under-regulated and wildly exploitative working conditions. While the United States suffers from a weak union movement, China has simply outlawed independent labor organizing and imposed a government-controlled union apparatus, leaving millions of low-wage workers disenfranchised.
US union leaders fixate on preserving steelmakers, but what about failing to challenge the global manufacturing framework that degrades workers around the world? The challenge of securing jobs that support fair labor standards for all has less to do with what’s being made and where than with the empowerment of workers. Would imposing higher tariffs (as opposed to raising wages and labor standards globally) dramatically revive the steel workforce? Unlikely. Would the move needlessly stoke geopolitical tensions? Quite possibly. What’s clear is that Trump has politically validated a manufacturing system that’s premised on multinationals’ profiting from global inequality and the devaluing of workers inside and outside the Rust Belt.
Another deeply antidemocratic aspect of Trump’s move is that he invoked an obscure rule on “national security” as a pretext for initiating tariffs unilaterally—a brazen provocation, given that the last trade deal he dismantled, the Trans-pacific Partnership—was heavily criticized in part because the Obama administration was given authority to negotiate unilaterally and without transparency.
Closer to home, and on the flip-side of the tariff debate, NAFTA is an example of how free trade can also fail workers. While Washington might complain about the “dumping” of foreign steel, the United States has arguably done the same to Mexican agriculture, which has bled $20 billion over five years under NAFTA thanks to a torrent of US exports flooding local food markets. Mega exports from US agrobusinesses might be great for big business, but independent family farms in both the United States and Mexico have suffered. Many small family farms in the United States have also vanished since NAFTA took effect, as industrial farms and agricultural imports have swelled. The devastation of Mexican agriculture has been even more severe, precipitating the displacement that has led to a wave of northern migration.
The received economic wisdom is that every free-trade deal has “winners and losers.” Yet today there’s also wholesale replacement of good jobs with worse ones—resulting in economic imbalances that hurt all workers, which don’t show up in trade-balance figures. In a “free trade” economy based on vast asymmetries in social conditions between nations, there’s no such thing as fair trade for labor. But generations of neoliberal policy-making have warped the way we think about work, reducing individual livelihoods to interchangeable commodities.
If politicians were genuinely interested in protecting American industry, “protectionism” would be about protecting workers’ equity and standards across borders. Instead, Trump’s vision of “fairness” for steelmakers trades on a falsehood, a zero-sum game between trading partners, when the real conflict is between capital and labor. Workers everywhere lose as long as the profit margins of corporate investors keep soaring.