EAST CHICAGO | U.S. Steel's East Chicago Tin plant employed around 369 hourly workers, running 10 lines around the clock to make metal for canned soup, aerosol cans and paint buckets.
But imports forced the steelmaker to idle the tin mill, where only 102 people are now working and only two lines are running part of the time.
Crown Point resident Tim Callander has worked there for 15 years, long enough to hold onto his job. But so many others with less seniority got laid off, and he's worried.
"I work as an electrician on the weekend, and there might be five cars in the parking lot," he said. "It's sad. It's eerie. Times have definitely changed for good hard-working people."
Callander headed to Washington, D.C. with about three dozen Northwest Indiana steelworkers for a national rally by the United Steelworkers union to call for stronger trade laws. About 600 steelworkers from across the country rallied outside the U.S. Capitol and urged members of Congress to oppose "Fast Track" Trade Promotion Authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
The Obama administration says removing trade barriers boosts American exports, which support an estimated 11.7 million jobs nationwide and about 187,309 in Indiana. More than 8,200 companies in the Hoosier state sent $35.5 billion in goods abroad last year, the federal government estimates.
Imports have however taken a major toll on Indiana's steel industry after seizing about a third of U.S. market share so far this year, a record number that's even higher than when a deluge of imports in the late 1990s forced most domestic steelmakers out of business. More than 6,000 steelworkers have been laid off around the country, and union members fear more layoffs will occur if trade rules are loosened further.
"If fast-track and TPP pass, it's just going to ship jobs out of our country," said Crown Point resident Bob Tribble, who works at the Gary Works steel mill. "It's already having a big impact on our steel industry right now. In Northwest Indiana, they've idled East Chicago Tin and shut the coke plants down at Gary Works. It's affecting all the big steel along the lakefront and we don't know what's going to happen."
The damage inflicted by steel dumped at below-market prices in the United States will have a ripple effect when steelworkers spend less at stores, restaurants and car dealerships, Tribble said.
Most than two-thirds of the employees have been laid off at East Chicago Tin, and they don't know when they can come back to work, Callander said. They've heard it could be restarted in a few months or maybe a year.
"It changes daily," he said. "My wife also works at U.S. Steel, in accounting. We're raising kids. It's scary."
Foreign government-backed competitors are dumping steel in the United States for less than what it costs to make, which has cost jobs in Northwest Indiana, he said. Giving foreign countries even more free rein through more permissive trade agreements could broaden the damage to many other industries, such as tire and paper manufacturing.
Trade laws need to level the playing field for U.S. manufacturers, who can make a better product and get it to market faster, Callander said. Currently, steelworkers have to lose their jobs before the federal government will impose tariffs, and even then it takes almost a year.
"It's a race to the bottom," he said. "They want to push our wages down. People don't understand this doesn't just affect steelworkers. If most of the residents in the town are steelworkers who pay taxes for the town parks and police and firefighters, what's going to happen to your towns when the industry is devastated and the good-paying jobs are gone? It's sad. This is a fight for our livelihood."