Kentucky Steelworker to the Senate Finance Committee: “Level the Playing Field”

By Matthew McMullan
Feb 16 2023 |
The Senate Finance Committee meets for a hearing on trade enforcement. Courtesy of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee

Andy Meserves’ aluminum smelter has been idled, in part, by wild price swings in the international metals market caused by China.

On a rainy Thursday morning in Washington D.C., a Kentucky aluminum worker described his job to lawmakers gathered for a Senate Finance Committee hearing on trade enforcement.

“I am a maintenance mechanic by trade, meaning that I’m responsible for ensuring everything from conveyor belts to cranes operate safely in a manufacturing process that turns raw materials into primary aluminum,” said Andy Meserves, the president of United Steelworkers Local 9423. “My job is to not just fix the immediate problem, but to do preventative maintenance and find the root cause of any breakdown; making recommendations to management on how to solve the problem long term.”

Meserves then completed the comparison.

“In some ways,” he continued, “you all are managers of our country’s economic wellbeing. So, I hope that my testimony today will highlight the immediate problems facing our smelter but also make long term recommendations to ensure a competitive U.S. primary aluminum industry.”

And what’s the immediate problem facing Meserves’ smelter in Kentucky?

It’s idled, due to high energy costs and untenable fluctuations in aluminum’s price, which are thanks to huge gluts of aluminum-making capacity coming online in China in recent years and being sold into the international market via its Belt and Road Initiative. There are hundreds of workers now at the Kentucky smelter who are uncertain of how long their jobs will be there for them, even though their smelter is among the last operating in the entire United States.

Among Meserves’ recommendations? Pass the Leveling the Playing Field Act 2.0.

“The policy decisions you all make in trade will impact whether we have a domestic aluminum industry or not, just as much as regional power prices.”

Andy Meserves, USW Local 9423 President

Now look: This wasn’t the only thing the Senate Finance Committee heard about from the aluminum worker from Kentucky. Meserves also pointed out that plenty of products made with Chinese forced labor infect the global aluminum market despite Congress passing legislation that’s meant to keep such products out of the United States. In his written testimony, Meserves notes the Chinese region of Xinjiang, home to a surveillance state currently grinding down the Uyghurs, is also home to 12% of the world’s aluminum-making capacity. He also noted the U.S. continues to import Russian aluminum, even as his own smelter is idled and the federal government sanctions Moscow over the war it’s waging in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the other witnesses spent lots of time imploring senators to preserve a lucrative tax dodge for retailers (it’s this one). But we’re gonna focus on Leveling the Playing Field 2.0, because it’s an actual good one.

This bill was introduced in the last Congress but – as trade-exposed industries like metals manufacturing aren’t about to be walled off from the international market – it remains important legislation. Leveling the Playing Field 2.0 would modernize U.S. anti-dumping and countervailing duty laws by making it much easier to go after repeat offenders, expediting cases and introducing the concept of “successive investigations” so that workers and companies harmed by cheating aren’t made to file entirely new cases when unfairly traded products are slightly modified or rerouted to avoid tariffs. It would also provide other tools to address cross-border subsidization, which would account for enormous loans China is giving to Belt and Road countries to buy all of that Chinese aluminum. And it’s specifically what’s needed for a domestic industry like his, Meserves noted.

“The policy decisions you all make in trade will impact whether we have a domestic aluminum industry or not, just as much as regional power prices,” he told the committee.

“Seems to me,” said chairman Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), “you’ve really given us a really eloquent statement, saying all you workers want is a more level playing field. That you can beat the pants off the competition as long as you get close to a level playing field. Is that a fair assessment of what you’re trying to make sure we’ve got up here in the Senate?”

“Yes. We have 520 well-trained Steelworkers in Kentucky who can make primary aluminum. We can do it well, and we can compete with anybody in the world,” said Meserves. “With a level playing field.”

You can watch a video of the hearing here.