U.S. President Donald Trump greets supporters at the “Make America Great Again” rally on March 10, 2018 in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. (Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images).
As President Trump signed hefty tariffs on most steel and aluminum imports Thursday, his top economic adviser Gary Cohn stood in the back of the Roosevelt Room with his arms crossed and a pained look on his face. Cohn, who announced last week he’s resigning from his role, disagreed vehemently with Trump over the tariffs. Most Republican lawmakers, business leaders, economists and Wall Street traders agree with Cohn that restricting trade is a mistake, and they are baffled at how trade became such a dirty word in the White House — and parts of America.
Kameen Thompson is trying to help them understand. Thompson, a 37-year-old steelworker from outside Philadelphia, drove through a snowstorm to be in Washington D.C. on Thursday. He hoped to stand by Trump during the signing of the tariffs, but the United Steelworkers union asked him to do a harder job: Go to Capitol Hill and educate lawmakers.
Thompson said he explained to them how he worked in construction and call centers during his teens and early 20s. It was a good year when he made $35,000. In 2005, his best friend’s brother told him about a steel job at the ArcelorMittal plant in Conshohocken, Pa. He was hired, and overnight his pay jumped to $80,000 plus benefits.
“I haven’t dipped under $80,000 since I started working in steel,” said Thompson, who is now the president of his local union, USW 9462. “That’s something you can build a family on.”
The money changed his life and gave him sense of purpose. The reason the plant was hiring in 2005 was a big order from the military to supply high-strength steel to provide more amour for Humvees in the Iraq and Afghan wars.
Thompson’s plant hummed with around 400 union workers until 2012. Then military orders dried up and the old customer base was gone, some closed during the Great Recession and some switched steel mills for their supplies. In 2015, metal prices crashed, driven largely by China flooding the world market with cheap steel. Today the plant in Conshohocken has about 200 union workers with more layoffs planned for later this year.
When Trump started campaigning to save blue-collar jobs and punish countries that don’t play fairly on trade, his message resonated among manufacturing workers, many of whom were going through fresh rounds of layoffs and pay freezes.
“Lot of steelworkers who were maybe Democrats didn’t switch party per se, but they switched to person who had their best interest,” said Thompson.
Workers like robots, but hate trade
Trump talks often about unfair trade, but experts say automation is the real threat to blue-collar jobs. Research by professors at Ball State University found that 88 percent of manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010 were due to robots and technology. It helps explain why manufacturing output in the United States is near a record high today, but blue-collar employment is way down from its peak in 1979.
But there’s a different view in the Rust Belt. Job losses from trade are far more visible to most workers than job losses from automation. When a factory closes and jobs go overseas — or even to another state — hundreds of workers lose their jobs overnight. In contrast, when robots arrive, only a few workers are displaced and they are often sent to other parts of the factory.
“Automation doesn’t close plants, it refits them. It’s more of a gradual change, like the slow boiling of the frog,” said Gordon Hanson, director of the Center on Global Transformation at the University of California San Diego. “The China shock throws the frog into a pot of boiling water.”
Robots also tend to take over the most backbreaking jobs in the factory, allowing workers to save their bodies and transition into more high-tech roles overseeing machines, jobs they hope will be less likely to be sent abroad.
Many economists and Wall Street bankers also like to point out that manufacturing is a small part of America’s economy today — just 12 percent. What they miss is that manufacturing remains core to the local identity in much of the Rust Belt.
“People really identify with these occupations that for so long defined these communities. They identify as scrappy, hard-working folks,” said Jill Ann Harrison, an associate professor at the University of Oregon who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio and studies deindustrialization.
Even if people don’t work in the mills, they grew up seeing the unions and factories sponsor the local Little League teams and charity events. Their relatives work — or worked — in the factories that still dominate to town’s landscape, not unlike the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City.
Even in Pittsburgh, which has seen one of the greatest reinventions of the early 21st century as a high-tech city, people still identify with steel.
“When people say they want the coal jobs back, I don’t know if they mean it literally, but they are saying, ‘give us back the economy we had in the 1960s and 1970s,'” said Josh Pacewicz, a Brown University sociology professor who has extensively studied Rust Belt towns. “Hating NAFTA is symbolic.”