Q&A with Jamie Walker: Why American Shipbuilding is Worth Fighting For

By Jeffrey Bonior
May 15 2024 |

The United Steelworkers (USW) sub-district director explains why his union is leading the effort to strengthen and grow American shipbuilding, which has been decimated in recent decades.

Jamie Walker is the sub-district director for District 1 of the United Steelworkers union (USW). Walker joined USW President Dave McCall, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and representatives from five other labor unions in Washington, D.C. in March to announce the filing of a Section 301 trade petition on China’s predatory shipbuilding practices. The Biden administration has since agreed to investigate, with President Biden promising action if China is found to be engaging in unfair practices.

Walker represents all of Northern Ohio for USW members. He joined the union at 18 as a forge operator for Ohio Star Forge in Warren, Ohio. After 23 years in the plant, he took a position on the USW staff in 2018 and was promoted to sub-district director in December 2023. He represents many of the crew members aboard the commercial bulk carriers that travel the Great Lakes.

Walker talked to our Jeff Bonior about the trade case, and why it’s so important to strengthen and grow shipbuilding in the United States.

Question: Why are you among the members representing the United Steelworkers in the Section 301 shipbuilding case?

Answer: Part of the reason I am involved with the shipbuilding case is because here in northern Ohio, I represent the unlicensed crew on all of the Great Lakes ore freighters that bring all the iron ore from the mines down to the mills. We have three companies here, Cleveland-Cliffs – which actually is an agent for Central Marine – and there is Interlake Steamship and Key Lake Shipping. Part of this shipbuilding case involves our domestic fleet.

Q: Why is it important to have our domestic commercial fleet made in America?

A: It is not only important, it is necessary, because here in the U.S we have the Jones Act that says our merchant marine fleet going from domestic port to domestic port requires that the ship be U.S. flagged, has a U.S. crew and is U.S. operated. Part of the Jones Act says those ships must be produced with 80% domestic materials. I think a lot of times people forget that in conflicts or a major conflict we are talking about national security. The idea of keeping a robust merchant marine fleet is that those vessels are often times flipped over to be carriers and supply ships and things like that if there were to be a major conflict.

Q: Is there any shipbuilding taking place today for Great Lakes vessels?

A: As it is right now, Interlake Steamship for example, just built a new ship last year and it was the first new boat to be built on the Great Lakes for almost 40 years. Interlake wanted all Cleveland-Cliffs steel to be used in building the ship. They used all Cliffs steel in the manufacturing of that ship and for them and for us it was kind of completing that whole supply chain.

Q: Do Canadian ships that operate on the Great Lakes have similar types of restrictions as ships manufactured in the U.S.?

A: Years ago, Canada had shipbuilding restrictions, but through legislation Canada has moved away from those laws. As it is right now, most all of Canada’s carriers are buying ships from China. So that puts our domestic carriers at a severe disadvantage just because of the price difference while the U.S.-flagged ships are U.S.-made as we believe they should be, Canada doesn’t have to do that. They are literally buying a fleet of ships that are all Made in China. The result of that is that 95% of the cargo being carried on the Great Lakes is being carried by Canadian fleets that were made in China while our U.S. fleets carry only 5%.

Q: Can the U.S. rely on procuring its commercial ships from China like Canada does?

A: We can’t let that happen here, especially if we ever get into a major conflict. On a national security level, we need to be able to build ships and flip ships over from the merchant marine side to being able to supply military vessels.

Q: Does quality come into play when comparing ships made in China to those built at U.S. shipyards?

A: Absolutely. Many U.S.-built ships on the Great Lakes are 70 to 75 years old and still doing their job. These ships should ultimately be replaced with ships manufactured in the U.S. In Canada, where their ships are all Made in China, there is a carrier called Algoma Enterprise that actually had a ship break in half when it was being towed back to China for repairs. It was under tow, and literally broke in half, and they had to tow it away from the tug so it could sink without sinking the tug. That’s the kind of quality difference we are talking about.

Q: How many jobs have been lost in American shipbuilding since the domestic industry workforce began its free fall in the 1980s?

A: My union, the United Steelworkers, has cited 70,000 shipbuilding jobs that have been lost not to mention the secondary and indirect jobs in the shipbuilding supply chain.

Q: Which American steel mills manufacture the steel used in building ships?

A: I know that the Cleveland-Cliffs mill in Conshohocken (Pennsylvania) makes plate that is directly used in shipbuilding for the military. In my sub-district, none of our mills are making steel specifically for ships but we have a lot of supply chain capability. Here in Cleveland, we have a plant called Cleveland Wire Cloth and they used to produce screens that went into air filters for the pneumatic systems that went on ships. They lost that work to overseas manufacturers years ago when they certainly had the capability to produce those products for ships. Hunt Valve down in Salem, Ohio makes actuators, valve accumulators and things like that which are used in Navy ships. They have all the capability in the world to produce for domestic ships but there are hardly any ships being built here in the U.S. so that capability is sitting there empty.

Q: Are there any other jobs related to shipbuilding that are held by USW members?

A: Some companies are still making parts and some of them have lost the work altogether. The fiber optics that go into the ships are made by steelworkers. Even aside from the exterior hull steel, all the thinner steel and electrical steel and air filters can be and, is often, made at Cleveland-Cliffs. The steelworkers are so diverse now there is so much of the supply chain that goes into shipbuilding as well. In Toledo, we have four or five different locals that make glass for automotive, and they could absolutely be making that glass for shipbuilding. I think in the entire U.S, we built 10 ships last year so that is not a whole lot of windows.

Q: Now that the USTR has indicated it would move forward with the 301 petition and investigate China’s shipbuilding practices, what would a favorable ruling look like for the U.S. commercial shipbuilding industry?

A: A success would be putting duties and tariffs on ships made overseas and on all those components that make up the ships as well so we can start balancing that back out. I believe we have enough shipbuilding capability but now we are at risk of losing that so that is the reason the case was filed when it was filed because we still have the capability to recoup some of this work. And the folks on the supply chain side have the capability to do this also. It just goes to show you when you get away from these laws and have unfair trade it shows how much it puts us at a disadvantage and what it leads to is that complete decline in domestic shipbuilding ability.