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.”