KTEP - El Paso, Texas

Illinois Steelworkers React To Tariffs

Mar 10, 2018
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Some manufacturers around the country are criticizing President Trump's decision to impose high tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, saying it could drive up costs and lead to plant closures and layoffs. But in steel country there are celebrations. NPR's David Schaper reports from Granite City, Ill., where U.S. Steel is restarting a shuttered blast furnace and calling back some 500 workers who've been laid off for more than two years.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Chris Bragg just can't stop smiling as he talks about his dirty job on the floor of U.S. Steel's Granite City steel mill.

CHRIS BRAGG: It's hard work. It's hot. It's dusty, grimy.

SCHAPER: It really doesn't sound that nice, and yet Bragg continues to grin ear to ear.

BRAGG: Yeah, it's my life. I enjoy it. I'm glad for the opportunity to go back.

SCHAPER: After 27 months of being laid off from this job he loves, Bragg finally got a call Wednesday to return to work.

BRAGG: The other night it was hard to sleep. I'm excited. We've been waiting and waiting for this call.

SCHAPER: Back in December of 2015, U.S. Steel shut down. Both of its blast furnaces at the Granite City mill had laid off more than 1,500 workers. The company blamed cheap, foreign-made steel, which drove down prices and made it too expensive to produce their rolled steel here. The company promised eventually when steel prices and demand rose that it would restart operations. But in the meantime, the 46-year-old Bragg worked some temporary construction and factory jobs. His wife got part-time work, and they cut back on household expenses.

BRAGG: It's been very, very stressful on me and my family because a lot of employers didn't want to hire us because they know we would go back to the mill. So it was hard finding employment.

SCHAPER: For a blue-collar community like Granite City, which sits almost right across the Mississippi River from downtown St. Louis, it's difficult to replace jobs like those in the steel mill. Pay ranges from $20 to $35 an hour. And workers get great health care. and retirement benefits, too. And then there's a ripple effect as the loss of those good jobs burdens the entire town of 29,000 people.

JAMES AMOS: Our other businesses in the area that are in the heavy metals manufacturing or in logistics - they see a direct impact.

SCHAPER: James Amos is Granite City's economic development director.

AMOS: Truck drivers and guys working at the barges as well as - yeah, the folks at Holt shoes and Ravanelli's, the restaurant down the street here. And it makes a substantial impact throughout our local economy.

SCHAPER: With 500 of those laid-off employees now getting ready to go back to work, business is already picking up again at Petri's Cafe, a diner just down the street from the massive steel mill.

LARRY PETRI: Today we had four or five orders going to the mill, where we've been only having like one or two with this shutdown.

SCHAPER: Owner Larry Petri, whose parents opened this restaurant delivery and catering business 71 years ago, has ridden the ups and downs of the steel business his entire life. And he says a big weight has now been lifted off the community.

PETRI: I think everybody's happy with it. I mean, it's obviously got to be good for the whole area, not just Granite City.

SCHAPER: Many here praise President Trump for keeping his promise to impose the tariffs. And to critics who say the move could start a trade war, Dan Simmons, president of United Steelworkers Union Local 1899, says...

DAN SIMMONS: It's all bull crap.

SCHAPER: And to those who say the tariffs will raise prices that could cause other manufacturers to lay off workers and even close plants...

SIMMONS: You know what I say to them? They were - had no problem taking jobs away from us under that same pretense. So to hell with them.

SCHAPER: Simmons doubts the tariffs will increase steel and aluminum prices as much as the critics say it will. And if his can of beer costs a few pennies more, then so be it. David Schaper, NPR News, in Granite City, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.