Trump Policy Pits Steel Workers Against Farmers. But What Do They Think?

July 26, 2018

Granite City native Jason Fernandez, who serves as vice president of Local 1899, was laid off 10 years ago during the Great Recession.

Carolina Hidalgo/St. Louis Public Radio

While President Trump’s trade wars have pitted steelworkers against farmers in Illinois, that doesn’t mean that those affected by recent trade policies aren’t worried about each other.

In Trump’s first visit to Illinois since he took office, he spent the afternoon at United States Steel in Granite City, where his trade policies recently brought back more than 500 steelworker jobs.

Those jobs meant a lot for Granite City, with lots of workers hoping on Thursday they’ll get a chance to “shake President Trump’s hand,” said Jason Fernandez, vice president of U.S. Steelworkers Local 1899 in Granite City.  “We’ve been asking for this for a long time.”

Fernandez said hiring in the region continues, with 20 to 30 new hires every week, with steelworkers making an average of $25 to $27 per hour.

Tariffs on steel are “the best way for us to get back to work, the best way for us to be sustainable,” Fernandez said, adding that many workers had been out of a job for more than two years prior to President Trump’s movements on tariffs.  “We’re just asking for fair trade, and President Trump was able to accommodate that.”

But when China retaliated with its own set of tariffs on U.S. exports, soybean prices took a major hit. This has caused farmers across the country to voice concern over how the trade war will affect their commodity prices - and President Trump on Thursday to announce a $12 billion aid package for U.S. farmers.

Fernandez said he often hears - especially from lawmakers - that “if the steel industry is going to receive this benefit [then] the farmers are going to suffer, and vice versa.”

He said in every industry, people have their own “narrow vision” of what they want, with no ill will or intent to harm those in other industries.

About an hour north of Granite City, in Jersey County, Ken Schafer farms hundreds of acres of soybean, corn and winter wheat. The recent uncertainty in commodity prices were tough when it came to his soybean harvest in June and July, Schafer said.

But despite the instability, Schafer said he still thinks Trump is heading in the right direction with his approach to trade.

“I’m confident that things will work out,” said Schafer. “United States farmers are some of the most efficient in the world, and we have some of the most productive farmland in the world, too.”

But that doesn’t mean he and other farmers are not concerned. He said the trade wars “caught us off-guard.”

Schafer said Trump’s aid package to offset retaliatory tariffs on agricultural exports will help struggling farmers.

“To me, it’s upsetting to see some headlines say it’s a welfare program for farmers,” Schafer said. “It’s a program to help us to get through this tough time until the markets can start reacting again the way they should be.”

Schafer said if he could speak to the President Trump today, he would want him to that while he’s optimistic things will turn around for farmers soon, he does not want the trade war to drag on for several years.

Schafer and Fernandez made their comments on Illinois Public Media’s statewide radio talk show, “The 21st.”