Steelworkers have been feeling a trade war for three or four decades now, American Alliance for Manufacturing President Scott Paul told a group of steelworkers in Burns Harbor Friday.

Century-old steel companies have gone bankrupt. Tens of thousands of steelworkers have been laid off. Communities have been devastated.

"Yet all we hear is that tariffs are a tax on the consumer," Paul said. "There's so much more to the debate than one-liners and zingers. This story has been brewing for a long time and we're finally pushing back. There was the realization that the path forward wasn't sustainable."

The Alliance for American Manufacturing, a joint initiative between the United Steelworkers union and major manufacturing companies, has been touring the country to talk to steelworkers about the benefits of the Section 232 tariffs of 25% on most foreign-made steel, to stress that the tariffs should not be a partisan issue, and to call for more action to help the domestic steel industry that's still struggling with depressed prices and stock values.

The manufacturing advocacy nonprofit stopped Friday at the USW Local 6787 union hall in Burns Harbor, Magneco-Metrel in Gary, Great Lakes Cafe in Gary and Indiana University Northwest.

At the union hall, Paul took part in a group discussion with USW officials who represent steelworkers at Gary Works and ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor, which started hiring again after the tariffs were imposed last year but has since imposed a hiring freeze because of declining steel prices. The steelworkers called for a renewed focus on helping the working class, ensuring products are still made in America, and protecting wages that have afforded them home ownership and other aspects of the American Dream.

"The tariffs have had a palpable impact on the industry and the Region," Paul said. "Companies have been hiring again and making investments they couldn't before in mills. Import penetration is down. But it's been leveling off somewhat."

He called on the steelworkers to make the case to the 20-plus Democratic presidential candidates and other politicians that such tariffs were something the union has sought for some time and were benefiting workers and steel towns.

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"People talk about tariffs like they're a bad thing, but they can be used in an effective way to bring back jobs," retired steelworker Mike Mitchell said. "Some of our trade agreements have damaged companies and made them go bankrupt. We need to put aside our differences, come together, and build the country."

Wall Street banks, automakers and farmers all have gotten bailouts, Paul said. The steel industry has not gotten or sought similar bailouts, just a level playing field in which they are not undermined by heavily subsidized foreign steel that's dumped below fair market value and often the cost of production.

"The steel industry just wants a level playing field and everybody's up in arms," he said.

Washington needs to do more to support good-paying steelworking jobs, including investing more in infrastructure and pressuring countries like China to address all the overcapacity in the global steel industry, Paul said.

"The tariffs have had a positive impact but a lot more work still needs to be done to ensure steel jobs are sustainable," he said. "Steel buyers might complain about paying a little more but it's in their interests to have a thriving domestic steel industry that's governed by market forces and not to have all of the American steelmakers rooted out."

The Alliance for American Manufacturing also made stops in Alabama, Pennsylvania and Metro East St. Louis, where U.S. Steel has recalled laid-off steelworkers.

"We're listening to the voices of steelworkers and getting a fuller picture of what these tariffs mean," AAM's Matthew McMullan said.


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.