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Demand for domestic steel is on the rise thanks in part to the Trump administration's new tariffs on imported steel. But the good times could come to a screeching halt if 30,000 unionized steelworkers go on strike. From Gary, Ind., NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Nestled between the hulking steel mills along the southern lip of Lake Michigan is Gary, Ind.'s, Miller Beach neighborhood. With the exception of frequent freight trains...
(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN HORN SOUNDING)
SCHAPER: ...It's pretty quiet in this working-class community that rides the ups and downs of the nearby mills. For 43 years, Larry Banks has been on that steel industry rollercoaster while working in the searing and grimy heat of ArcelorMittal's huge Burns Harbor steel mill. Sitting on a bar stool at the Thumbs Up Tavern, Banks says there's often decent pay, overtime and bonuses but also bankruptcies, benefits cuts and layoffs. Right now times are good.
LARRY BANKS: 'Cause they making a whole lot of money. Why can't we get a little bit of it? That's all I'm saying.
SCHAPER: When ArcelorMittal was struggling three years ago, Banks and 15,000 other union steelworkers around the country accepted a pay freeze. But now profits are soaring. In the second quarter of this year, the company reported a profit of nearly $2 billion, up a whopping 40 percent over last year.
BANKS: They up. They up. But we just now reaping the benefits of it.
SCHAPER: There are similar complaints at restaurants, coffee shops and local stores all across northwest Indiana directed at both ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel, which also has several mills in the area. USW contracts expired three weeks ago, and negotiators are again bargaining over pay raises and benefits. Burns Harbor union local vice president Tim Dobkins says for decades, steelworkers have had to contend with unfair competition from cheaper foreign steel.
TIM DOBKINS: The jobs went away because of the dumping of all the steel that was coming in this country.
SCHAPER: So he and others in the union support President Trump's tariffs and his calling out of countries like China that Dobkins accuses of cheating. Dobkins notes that at Burns Harbor and mills all around the country, the votes to authorize a strike were nearly unanimous. But while the steelworkers want to cash in on the good times now, management is cautious.
MICAH POLLAK: It is very uncertain times certainly in an industry that's changing and has changed as much as steel and manufacturing in general.
SCHAPER: That's Micah Pollak, who teaches business and economics at Indiana University Northwest in Gary.
POLLAK: It kind of looks like we're at the start of an escalating trade war, and if that is the case, it doesn't necessarily mean that the U.S. steel industry will ultimately benefit.
SCHAPER: That's because other nations imposing tariffs on American steel and steel-made products could significantly hurt demand. Pollak says already manufacturers that rely on American steel are starting to order less of it. The prospects of a steelworkers strike overshadows the rest of the economy in this part of the country.
POLLAK: Steel is still a huge focus in northwest Indiana. It still is the biggest employer. It's certainly the - where the high-paying jobs are. And it also is kind of like an icon for the region. And so, you know, the way that steel goes in general our region tends to go.
SCHAPER: Representatives for U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal would not comment on air for this story. But in statements, both companies say they're offering significant wage hikes and report making progress at the bargaining table. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.