Trade Commission Hears from Detroit Workers Left Behind by Trade

The International Trade Commission held a three-hour seminar on Wednesday about the impacts of global trade in Detroit, Michigan, and got an earful. Black workers, most of them members of steelworker unions in the Detroit area, said globalization has been “devastating” for many people they know.

Learning to code isn’t going to cut it. Giving state grants to college towns in Ann Arbor isn’t going to cut it. And moving to new jobs across state lines is easier said than done, especially for families.

Andrea Hunter, president of USW Local 1299 was one of a handful of people who spoke to ITC commissioners this week in its sixth hearing on the subject of trade impacts.

“I lost 1,200 workers here due to layoffs and trade deals, and because you’ve got countries like China going around all the red tape. This has seriously impacted this community,” she told ITC commissioners led by Jason Kearns.  “We had tariffs on steel, but then the loopholes allowed steel to come in anyway. I think what really bothers us even more as steelworkers is that we have to deal with all these regulations to sell steel that our competitors do not.  You realize that all of this has a ripple effect on small businesses, on restaurants that have shut down, for instance, as the community suffers. These trade deals are not worth the paper they are written on. And if the point now is to minimize the amount of products imported here but they still get through anyway in greater quantities because of loopholes…you’re just devastating the future of America.”

At least two other attendees said that companies often use the threat of offshoring as a means to keep labor costs down.

One man, speaking from his vehicle on a cellphone, said that “when the company tells you that they can’t compete with foreign companies, what they really are saying is that they are not happy making 20 times what their average worker makes; they want to make 30 times instead.”

Kearns said trade did have some benefits, but often it meant the jobs moved to some other part of the country. None of this was relevant to people at the hearing, citing numerous reasons like age, family ties, kids in school, and the prospect of a spouse having to quick their job in order to relocate.

Mark DePaoli of the United Auto Workers Local 600 said that offshoring also impacted the small to midsized tool shops and parts suppliers. “A lot of those workers are minorities, and they get hurt first from offshoring,” he said. “If we lose work at a Ford plant, our smaller parts suppliers get hurt, so they shed workers, and sometimes they go out of business. And I think that is where the majority of our minority workers are employed.”

Although not brought up in the discussion, the auto fleet is moving into battery-powered vehicles. These vehicles require fewer parts, meaning the destruction of the traditional automotive manufacturing market will lead to few jobs for parts suppliers and parts manufacturers.

Worth noting, Ford has only two new product lines in the EV space: the Ford Lightning will be made in Michigan. But the Ford Mach-E Mustang is being made in Mexico, where the peso makes it impossible for a U.S. autoworker, especially a union worker, to compete with Mexico unions on labor costs.

John Jeffers from the Alliance for American Manufacturing told Kearns and other ITC commissioners that he was laid off years ago from the Horsehead Corporation, a zinc metals company serving the steel industry, which went belly up in 2016 following trade-related layoffs at one of its partner steel mills in Pennsylvania.

“The grocery stores go, the mom-and-pop stores shut down,” he said about the downsizing and mill closures. “A lot of people had to seek mental health treatment, some committed suicide, and you had lots of divorces because of this,” he recalled about the Horsehead and steel mill demise. “This is how global trade has impacted people. You have a lot of these ghost towns because these steel mills and manufacturing got up and left. You had a lot of people making good money, and they lost their livelihoods. There were a lot of these guys in their 50s…who wants to hire someone over 50? Companies are not looking for that. We need to look at the human impact on trade,” he said.

Known as the Motor City, Detroit’s claim to fame was the auto industry, an industry that is imploding and being made anew. Arguably, the history of Motown can be tied to the socioeconomic status of Black people that were either working on Ford assembly lines, but more importantly those who benefited from a strong city economy.

Those days are gone, made all the more complicated by the 2008-09 housing crisis that ruined the city’s housing market. Today, Detroit is a shadow of its former self as both a manufacturing powerhouse and a pop culture hub. It has a 37.9% poverty rate. 

“What I am hearing is that trade might have killed a job in one community but created one in another community, and either there are no resources like education to take advantage of that, or you have to move and maybe the spouse has a job they don’t want to lose,” said Kearns. “A lot of times this is harder for women to move around because of children.”

Andrea Hunter said she is a mother, and while she is employed and not at risk of having to move, “I have a special needs child. I have the resources here, the family and friends here. If I had to relocate and be around total strangers, I have no connection to the community…all of that is gone. This is what people don’t understand,” she said.

The ITC’s sixth hearing on the impacts of trade will continue on Friday. These hearings were the brainchild of Katherine Tai, now into her first year as head of the USTR.

The ITC is an independent agency, and not part of the President’s administration, nor is it part of Congress. The ITC is well insulated from the political crosswinds in Washington as an even number of commissioners come from both parties and can serve 9 years maximum.

The USTR had asked ITC to examine how international trade impacts people along race and gender, and socioeconomic status.

A report will be written on these hearings and made public in October.

Last summer, the ITC report titled Economic Impact of Trade Agreements Implemented Under Trade Authorities Procedures showed that both NAFTA and KORUS led to bigger benefits for multinational corporations, with the most negative effects on Black workers, and women without college educations.

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