'It hasn't benefited us a dime': Georgia steelworkers' verdict on Trump tariffs

US steel plants are meant to be booming in the wake of Trump’s tariffs – but tell that to production line workers in Trenton

Union member and mill operator Joey Casey, 40, wasn’t getting paid for the day, so he enjoyed lunch at Thatcher’s BBQ on the main square in Trenton, Georgia.

The day before, managers at the Caparo Bull Moose Tube Co plant told Casey, also the local union president, and those on his production line not to come in to work because of a malfunctioning part. Because the plant notified them with enough time, Casey and his colleagues won’t get paid until the part is fixed.

The odd non-payday will add up, the workers say. It comes just weeks after a company-enforced lockout where the union workers survived on unemployment pay for five weeks. It was the first lockout in Georgia for 30 years.

It was not meant to be this way. Steel plants are meant to be booming in America in the wake of tariffs introduced by Donald Trump to try to get heavy industry moving again. But here the benefits of the controversial policy are yet to filter down. And in this town of 2,200, tucked into the north-west corner of Georgia between Tennessee and Alabama, these steelworkers doubt the benefits ever will reach the workers.

In June, Trump imposed a 25% tariff on steel imported from the European Union, Canada and Mexico, with the tax applying to a range of steel and aluminium products including sheets, plates, bars, pipes and “semi-finished” products. By making it more expensive for the country’s manufacturers to buy foreign steel, Trump says he’s protecting American workers and businesses.

Ironically, Caparo Bull Moose Industries is a US-based unit of a privately owned UK company – so one could argue the benefits are ultimately going to a foreign firm.

Management of the firm welcome Trump’s tariffs. “We are doing well,” Jim Charmley, president and CEO of Caparo Bull Moose Industries told the Guardian by phone from the St Louis headquarters. They are adding a dozen jobs to their manufacturing operations in Arizona because of the limits on Korean imports, he said, though he was unable to give specifics on financials.

Back in Thatcher’s BBQ, Gary Christopher, 54, who has worked in maintenance at the plant for 33 years, poured a glug of ranch dressing over his salad and gave a blunt assessment of Trump’s policies. “It [hasn’t] benefited anyone at this table a dime.”

But they do think the company benefited after the tariffs were announced, they allege, saying Caparo Bull Moose stockpiled cheap steel, knowing the tariffs were coming. And as soon as they had a warehouse full of tubes, Casey alleged, the workers were locked out.

That meant the company would not have to pay them while they negotiated their contract and could sell the stockpile of goods while putting them on a much lower unemployment rate.

Three heads at the table nod in agreement.

In an email to the Guardian, in response to these allegations, Charmley said: “These allegations are misguided and incorrect.”

He said: “I would point out two things: first, negotiations went on for five months before a work stoppage was initiated by the company, so if we were planning that, we would have done so sooner. The tariffs took effect several months before a work stoppage, so the timing is off. Second, no one wins when work stops; neither the company nor the workers benefit, so implementing a work stoppage was the last thing the company wanted to do.”

Donald Trump tours US Steel’s Granite City works in Illinois.
Donald Trump tours US Steel’s Granite City works in Illinois. Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Unemployment for those weeks was $330 a week, or, $8.25 dollars an hour, according to the union members. When they’re not locked out, according to the company, the average hourly pay is $22.59.

No one takes care of us, said Richard “Harley” Hamilton, 59, who works on Casey’s line, pushing back his black Native American veteran hat.

The lockout has left a bitter taste. At the same time Trump was singing the praises of the steel industry in America, US Steel Workers Union 13679 in Trenton – just 53 workers strong – was fighting for a pay increase and trying to keep their burgeoning healthcare insurance from eating up their incremental raise. For six months, they negotiated.


As Casey, Christopher, Hamilton and Eddie Varnell, 59, wrapped up lunch, they drove down the road to take a look at the strip of grass – the ditch, they call it – the union workers stood on for seven weeks, waiting to come to an agreement with their employer. Just as a shift ended, they were greeted by Charlie Pittman, who was able to work that day on his line.

He immediately jumped into the conversation, unhappy with how they were treated by the company during the lockout. He stopped buying his medication because he couldn’t afford it on unemployment.

“Thank God for donations,” he said. “We wouldn’t have enough food. We wouldn’t have been able to pay our electricity bills. I had no savings. Had it not been for the help of unemployment, the union and the community,” he trailed off, looking at the others.

The company tried to negotiate with the union 15 times, Charnley said. “We were making no progress at the table.”

He said the company offered the union workers what he considered a good raise: $1,000 in exchange for $150 increase on healthcare premiums. The average worker at the plant makes $47,000, just slightly above the county household median income.

“But the union rejected that,” he added. “The offer we made to the Trenton workers, very similar to the offer we made to four other plants – all four of those have accepted it – and since Trenton, our plant in Chicago has accepted a very similar offer.”

Casey and the others don’t see it that way. “We’re better off under our old contract than the new one,” he said.

Yet no one wants to leave the plant.

“We made this company, we made it what it is, off our backs. I believe in the company still,” Hamilton added.

These workers could now be just days away from another potential lockout, trying to negotiate the same contract that was up eight months ago. “The union has received a competitive offer from the company, and we hope the workers are allowed to vote on it so we can all move forward,” Charmley said.

Do the workers feel secure at a time when their sector is supposed to be booming?

“Not now we don’t,” Christopher said.

But it’s the quietest of the bunch who sums up their feelings best.

“It’s like we’re looking down a cliff,” Varnell said.


Khushbu Shah in Trenton

The GuardianTramp

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