In West Mifflin, Commerce secretary promises action on cheap steel imports
Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said she shares American steel manufacturers' concerns about cheap imports that economists say threaten hundreds of thousands of domestic jobs, even though her department has been criticized for doing little to address the issue.
Pritzker visited West Mifflin on Thursday to tour the U.S. Steel Irvin facility and promote federal job training programs.
She visited as U.S. Steel lays off workers and slashes expenses to improve the company's performance after five consecutive years of losses and a slumping stock price.
U.S. steel producers have encountered weak global demand and price competition from imports. The industry has complained about unfair competition from South Korea, China and other nations, where government-backed producers are dumping excess steel on the market at below cost.
Pritzker said her department is “committed to investigate the unfair trade cases. ...We're working to press hard our concerns with countries like China and other countries around the world that are creating distortions in the steel market.”
Job reductions and other cost cuts at U.S. Steel have led to $290 million in savings this year, and the company continues “to go after savings,” said spokeswoman Courtney Boone. The company has not disclosed the number of jobs it has cut, and Boone declined to elaborate.
Pritzker was accompanied by U.S. Steel CEO Mario Longhi and Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, both of whom have called on the Commerce Department to enforce trade protections.
American steelmakers are awaiting the department's decision on a complaint filed last year against nine countries they allege sold tubular steel in the United States for less than it cost to produce. They want the government to enforce trade laws similar to the penalties imposed on China in 2009, when it was the top exporter.
The fight has become political, as 51 senators signed a letter sent on Thursday to Pritzker to “express our concerns” with how the Commerce Department has handled the issue, according to The Wall Street Journal. The department's preliminary decision in February exempted South Korea, the top exporter of oil and gas pipe to the United States, from a list of countries accused of “dumping” steel exports below cost. Eight other countries — India, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine and Vietnam — are included in the complaint. The department said it will issue a final decision by July 8.
Pritzker offered no indication of how her department will decide, though Longhi expressed confidence that she took the complaint seriously.
“The secretary is putting her best talent available to make sure that a proper investigation takes place,” Longhi said. “And we're not asking for anything special. We're asking for the fair playing field to be protected. No favors. No anything. A globalized environment needs to play by the same rules that we do. And in that tone, we will compete against anybody.”
Steel imports rose 12.3 percent between 2011 and 2013 and surged 25 percent in the first two months of this year, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute this week. If the United States does not enforce trade protections, then nearly 600,000 American jobs, including 35,300 in Pennsylvania, could be at risk, the report said.
Longhi and Gerard took their concerns to Washington in March and have continued to push the Commerce Department to enforce the trade protections.
U.S. Steel has about 5,000 employees in Pittsburgh and 37,000 worldwide.
Gerard declined to speculate how many workers would lose their jobs should the Commerce Department rule against U.S. steel producers. But he said he was confident they had Pritzker's support.
“Am I worried? You're damn right, I'm worried,” Gerard said. “But I actually have a strong belief that the secretary and her team are going to do the right thing.”
Pritzker's visit to West Mifflin was intended to highlight the Obama administration's job training initiatives aimed at developing new apprenticeship programs and encouraging universities and community colleges to work with the private sector on workforce development.
Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.