Steelworkers vow to make Trump tariffs an election issue for Trudeau

VANCOUVER—One of Canada’s largest private-sector unions promised Tuesday to fight the federal Liberals if the government approves the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (USMCA) before steel tariffs imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump are removed.

Canada’s United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union (known as the Steelworkers) began their four-day national policy convention in Vancouver on Tuesday.

United Steelworkers national director Ken Neumann speaks at the union's annual national policy convention in Vancouver on Tuesday. The Steelworkers said Donald Trump’s tariffs led to job losses, uncertainty and a reduction of steel exports to the U.S. of up to 29 per cent.
United Steelworkers national director Ken Neumann speaks at the union’s annual national policy convention in Vancouver on Tuesday. The Steelworkers said Donald Trump’s tariffs led to job losses, uncertainty and a reduction of steel exports to the U.S. of up to 29 per cent.  (Alex McKeen / Star Vancouver)

The Steelworkers in Canada have more than 225,000 members in industries that range from manufacturing, to services, security and universities. But on Tuesday morning, the convention was laser-focused on the Steelworkers’ namesake industry, with leaders calling on the federal government to fight back more forcefully against U.S. steel tariffs and prolong efforts to prop up the domestic industry as a months-long trade war rages on.

Trump in May slapped tariffs of 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminum imported from Canada and other allies.

Local 9548 union president Cody Alexander, who represents workers at Algoma Tubes in Sault Sainte Marie, Ont., said local members were initially sympathetic to Trump’s campaign promises to crack down on imports of cheap steel from China to protect American jobs.

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U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in June that the steel and aluminum tariffs Washington imposed on Canada and other allies were designed to force them to address the overproduction and overcapacity of steel around the world.

The Trump administration has also drawn direct links between steel imports, tariffs and the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which concluded when the parties signed the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement in November.

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But the agreement hasn’t been ratified yet, prompting calls by the union to reject it.

Steelworkers national director Ken Neumann said the signing of the agreement, which was not accompanied by the removal of the tariffs, was an affront to workers who saw the government giving up their best bargaining chip.

“Do not ratify the USMCA,” Neumann said, calling out the government in a speech to more than 400 union delegates Tuesday. “Have the decency. When you say you have our back, show us what you mean.”

A third of Canadian exporters reported being hurt by the tariffs in a December survey. The Steelworkers said the tariffs led to job losses, uncertainty and a reduction of steel exports to the U.S. of up to 29 per cent.

Neumann vowed the Steelworkers would make the tariffs and trade deal an election issue.

The union also wants the government to extend temporary steel industry “safeguards” implemented in October, which apply a 25 per cent tax to certain foreign steel products “in cases where the level of imports from trading partners exceeds historical norms.”

Currently Canada has tariffs on U.S. steel, and the extra 25 per cent tax could apply to imports of cheap steel from China and elsewhere.

Steelworkers want to see the rule, which encourages the purchase of domestic steel, made permanent. A construction industry coalition called The Canadian Coalition for Construction Steel opposed the move, saying it would make accessing steel more expensive for builders in Canada.

Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. Building Trades unions, said there’s no doubt construction jobs are impacted by the tariffs and Canada’s response to them. But he still wants to see Canada encourage the use of domestic product.

“We should be using the best steel available, and it comes from Canada,” he said.

With files from The Canadian Press

Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering wealth and work. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen

TORONTO STAR