Watching Workers’ Backs on Trade
By Tom Conway
USW International President
Lamar Wilkerson and his co-workers at U.S. Steel’s Fairfield Tubular Operations help to lead the battle for America’s energy security, producing the top-quality pipe that keeps oil, natural gas and other products flowing through vast distribution networks.
But as workers at the Alabama plant labor to build out this critical infrastructure, they face an insidious threat. Foreign countries quietly dump cheap tubular goods in U.S. markets, putting their jobs and the nation’s safety at risk.
Just last week, the United Steelworkers (USW) and congressional allies won key protections for the Fairfield workers — and their counterparts at other pipe manufacturers across the country — with a U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) ruling triggering duties on unfairly traded tubular goods from Argentina, Mexico, Russia and South Korea.
“We want to keep everything American made,” explained Wilkerson, president of USW Local 1013, which represents hundreds of workers at Fairfield. “That’s what built this country. That’s what needs to continue to build this country.”
The ITC determined — based on evidence provided by the USW and others — that American workers have been “materially injured” by the unfair imports of these oil country tubular goods (OCTG). Russia and South Korea illegally subsidized the production of these items and acted, along with the other two countries, to dump these products in the United States at artificially low prices and steal market share from U.S. pipe manufacturers.
“As the Co-Chairman of the Congressional Steel Caucus, I am committed to continuing to do everything possible to ensure that bad actors and countries that cheat know that American trade laws will be fully enforced,” Mrvan said in arguing for the duties during a hearing before the ITC in September. “We must continue to work to ensure that all American workers and the domestic pipe and tube industry are able to compete on a level playing field.”
The new duties on imports will not only rebalance the scales, giving Wilkerson and his colleagues a fair shot at competing with foreign suppliers, but also facilitate the continued safe and reliable development of domestic energy supplies.
Union members at Fairfield and other plants take great pride in making products “of the best quality,” Wilkerson said, noting workers manufacture a “line pipe” for carrying the oil or gas as well as a casing that provides additional security for distribution networks.
Some of these pipelines link production fields to refineries and chemical and petrochemical plants, while others deliver energy to customers. Because these lines traverse waterways, residential neighborhoods and other sensitive areas, the nation has strong incentive to rely on only the strongest, most dependable components.
And foreign-produced pipe, Wilkerson noted, is “cheaply made. It may be no good when it goes in the ground.”
The ITC’s decision on OCTG will ripple through the economy, helping to protect not only the thousands of union members manufacturing pipe across the country but thousands more workers at the steel plants supplying pipe-making facilities.
“Northwest Indiana is home to an incredible steel and manufacturing base, and the dedicated workforce and members of the United Steelworkers provide the material and hot-rolled steel that is used to make OCTG products,” Mrvan reminded the ITC in September.
Unions and pro-worker officials waged similar battles over the years to safeguard family-sustaining jobs in America’s aluminum, magnesium, paper, tire and many other industries. They’ve joined forces to fight foreign dumping of hot-rolled, cold-rolled and flat-rolled steel along with steel wheels and rebar.
And they teamed up to fight previous dumping of tubular goods in U.S. markets.
“When I return to my district later this month, I want to assure my constituents that we have taken appropriate steps to remedy this pervasive problem,” Ryan, now running for U.S. Senate, told the ITC during a hearing in 2009 as China flooded America with cheaply made pipe. The ITC ultimately ruled that the imports damaged American industry, triggering duties against the cheaters.
Again, in 2014, Ryan stepped up to help workers successfully beat back an influx of OCTG from various countries.
“You’ve got to be really vigilant about it. You’ve got to pay attention all the time,” observed Charles Perko, president of USW Local 3267, noting trade offenders not only continually attempt to infiltrate U.S. markets but try to circumvent duties the federal government imposes on unfairly traded products.
While workers and unions contribute unique expertise to trade cases, elected officials can use the bully pulpit to draw attention to cheating and the power of their offices to move complaints through enforcement agencies, observed Perko, whose local represents workers at Evraz’s OCTG mill in Pueblo, Colo.
“They’re going to listen to someone who has ‘senator’ or ‘member of Congress’ after their name,” he added, pointing out that some officials — including Ryan, Mrvan, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Reps. Terri Sewell of Alabama and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut — have national reputations for standing watch with workers on trade.
Wilkerson said workers already feel the impact of efforts to safeguard America’s OCTG industry. In the months since the USW and its congressional allies launched a united front against cheaters, the company created new jobs at Fairfield and increased overtime for union members.
“Business is really good right now,” Wilkerson said.