As a result, some steel workers fear that a hasty deal with Europe could come at the expense of local steelmakers and their union workers, whose support for Biden in key swing states has helped catapult him into the White House.
“The Biden administration understands that simply lifting steel tariffs without a solution, especially beyond dialogue, could mean layoffs and plant closings in Pennsylvania and Ohio and other states, where the repercussions are evident not only economically but also politically said Scott Paul, President of the Alliance for American Manufacturing.
The political calculation for Biden
Since his early days in office, Biden has sought to dismantle many of his predecessor’s policies toward the world outside of US borders. He places particular emphasis on reasserting the US as a global force interested in working – not chastising – with like-minded nations on policies ranging from climate change to global health.
But he hasn’t touched Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, and members of his cabinet have even gone so far as to praise them. The pressure from the unions is a major reason for this.
Ultimately, Biden has to decide whether the well-being of the few – the roughly 137,200 steel and ironworkers in the country last year – outweighs the well-being of the many – according to an estimate, 6.5 million workers who need steel or aluminum for the goods they make . A number of economists warn that steel tariffs put more jobs at risk than they keep.
“On the one hand, steel workers don’t represent many voters because there aren’t that many, but they are important voters in important states,” said Todd Tucker, director of governance studies at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive-lopsided think tank.
“If you look at the geographic location where steel production is most widespread, there are some congressional districts in Ohio, Pennsylvania and some other places that will certainly be important in presidential years, but some Senate races in 2022.” Tucker added.
Biden’s worker roots have long been central to his political identity. He leaned on them during the 2020 campaign in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin when he pledged to bolster U.S. manufacturing and rebuild a coronavirus-ravaged economy.
Biden told the United Steelworkers in a campaign questionnaire that he would support steel and aluminum tariffs until global overcapacity is eliminated, but he also promised to review Trump’s “short-sighted and destructive” approach to tariffs. He criticized his opponent at the time for failing to address China’s trade practices and alienating foreign allies.
“I will use tariffs when they are needed, but the difference between me and Trump is that I have a strategy – a plan – to use those tariffs to win, not just to feign harshness,” said Biden the union.
His government is now keen to show that it works. Biden earned praise from working groups for signing an executive order just days after he took office that encourages federal agencies to buy more US products. He promoted these stricter rules in a speech this summer in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, with American-made Mack trucks parked behind him.
“I’m here to share a commitment that is sacred to me and central to our efforts to keep things moving,” said Biden. “It’s a straightforward solution: support and grow more American-based businesses, hire more Americans in union jobs, strengthen American manufacturing, and secure critical supply chains.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate approved would be another victory for Biden, with unions disappointed that Trump failed to deliver on his infrastructure promises. The $ 550 billion package would free billions of dollars for construction-intensive projects such as roads, bridges, and rails that would benefit U.S. manufacturers and steelmakers.
And the infrastructure package, if passed, could provide political cover for Biden if his decision on tariffs ultimately disappoints steel workers.
Thompson said Biden’s campaign pledge to invest heavily in infrastructure and boost the U.S. manufacturing sector met with resonance from its members. However, the same members are sensitive to unfair trading practices by foreign steelmakers in China and Europe, where industry groups and unions argue that overcapacity is also a problem.