Trickle-Down in Steel

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

A steelworker speaks on a radio at the U.S. Steel Granite City Works facility in Granite City, Illinois.

For the American steel industry, these are boom times. President Trump’s tariffs on steel imports have been a boon to domestic manufacturers, who are enjoying profits unlike any they’ve seen in years.

And as for the steelworkers? Well, not so much.

The profit surge has come just as the multi-year contracts that the United Steelworkers has with the two mega-makers of American steel—Arcelor Mittal and U.S. Steel—have expired. The companies have presented their 31,000 unionized employees with proposed new contracts that appear designed to demonstrate just how farcical trickle-down economics actually is.

At first glance, the pay increases appear generous. But the companies are also asking their workers to start paying for health benefits that cost an arm and a leg. According to a report in today’s Los Angeles Times, the net effect “would reduce the overall wage increase to just about 1.7 percent over nine years.”

Not surprisingly, then, the workers have voted to authorize a strike. Negotiations with the companies are ongoing.

President Trump’s backward-looking view of the economy has had the effect of casting the steel industry even more as a dinosaur, a 19th-century relic that has somehow managed to survive into the 21st. But anyone who tours these companies’ plants, as I did a few years back, sees a facility where workers control the flow of molten metal with computerized technology and where joint union-management academies provide employees with courses in electrical engineering and the like. Employment in unionized steel plants is highly skilled, 21st-century work.

If the federal government genuinely sought to help these workers, it would look beyond trade policy to creating a universal health-care system that reduced the kind of costs with which the steel industry—and all American industries—are grappling. It would amend our labor laws so that all U.S. steelworkers could join unions and be able to exert the kind of pushback that the employees at U.S. Steel and Arcelor Mittal are now exerting. Clearly, that kind of federal government will be nowhere in evidence until—let’s hope—the 2020 election.

Tax Cuts for the rich. Deregulation for the powerful. Wage suppression for everyone else. These are the tenets of trickle-down economics, the conservatives’ age-old strategy for advantaging the interests of the rich and powerful over those of the middle class and poor. The articles in Trickle-Downers are devoted, first, to exposing and refuting these lies, but equally, to reminding Americans that these claims aren’t made because they are true. Rather, they are made because they are the most effective way elites have found to bully, confuse and intimidate middle- and working-class voters. Trickle-down claims are not real economics. They are negotiating strategies. Here at the Prospect, we hope to help you win that negotiation.

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