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Aimed at China, Trump’s tariffs are hitting closer to home

Jose Mata grinds a steel pipe at the Borusan Mannesmann plant on Monday in Baytown, Texas. President Donald Trump's escalating dispute with China over trade and technology is threatening jobs and profits in working-class communities where his "America First" pledges drew massive support in his 2016 campaign.. Without a waiver, Borusan Mannesmann Pipe may face tariffs of $25 million to $30 million annually if it imports steel tubing and casing from its parent company in Turkey, according to information the company provided to The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Loren Elliott)

Jose Mata grinds a steel pipe at the Borusan Mannesmann plant on Monday in Baytown, Texas. President Donald Trump’s escalating dispute with China over trade and technology is threatening jobs and profits in working-class communities where his “America First” pledges drew massive support in his 2016 campaign.. Without a waiver, Borusan Mannesmann Pipe may face tariffs of $25 million to $30 million annually if it imports steel tubing and casing from its parent company in Turkey, according to information the company provided to The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Loren Elliott)

By RICHARD LARDNER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s escalating dispute with China over trade and technology is threatening jobs and profits in parts of Wisconsin and other places where his “America First” pledges drew massive support for his campaign in 2016.

The Commerce Department has received more than 2,400 applications from companies seeking waivers from the administration’s tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, which may result in duty payments of millions of dollars for larger businesses. The department has begun posting the requests online for public comment; several of the applications released so far suggest deep misgivings over Trump’s protectionist plans, especially in places where he won strong support during the 2016 election.

The tariffs are aimed primarily at China for flooding the global market with cheap steel and aluminum. But they’ve also led to confusion and uncertainty, according to interviews and a review of records by the Associated Press. Not only in Wisconsin but also such states as Oklahoma and Texas, businesses in the furniture, energy and food industries are making predictions about the financial difficulties they’ll face if they’re not exempted from the tariff on steel.

In Okmulgee, Oklahoma, dozens of jobs hang in the balance as the office-furniture giant Steelcase waits to hear back from the Commerce Department.

A Steelcase subsidiary, PolyVision, operates a plant in Okmulgee that uses a special type of steel from Japan to make a durable glass-like surface for whiteboards and architectural purposes. PolyVision “cannot and will not be able to procure” the cold-rolled steel it requires from U.S. companies “in a sufficient and reasonably available amount or of a satisfactory quality,” Steelcase said.

Trump won most of the votes cast for president in Okmulgee County. Without a waiver, Steelcase warned, the “economic viability of PolyVision (and) the small town of Okmulgee” would be endangered.

Roger Ballenger, Okmulgee city manager, said he and other local officials are “very concerned about the situation with PolyVision.”

The tariffs — set at 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum — are designed to protect and rebuild U.S. companies that make these metals. The U.S. temporarily exempted several major trading partners, including the European Union, Mexico and Canada.

China, which was left on the target list, retaliated by imposing tariffs on $3 billion worth of U.S. products, including apples, pork and ginseng.

Trump responded by adding more protectionist measures as punishment for the alleged theft by the Chinese of U.S. intellectual property. And Beijing punched back again by proposing tariffs on $50 billion worth of U.S. products, including small aircraft and soybeans — posing a direct threat to rural areas that were central to Trump’s victory.

John Hritz, CEO of JSW Steel USA in Baytown, Texas, said his company is in lockstep with Trump’s approach. “We’re in favor of growing the steel industry in this country,” Hritz said. JSW Steel, owned by Indian conglomerate JSW Group, is embarking on a $500 million overhaul of its plant, a project it says will create hundreds of jobs.

The growth would be welcomed in Baytown, where unemployment is 9.8 percent, more than double the national rate. Baytown is partly in Harris County, which Democrat Hillary Clinton won, and partly in Chambers County, which Trump handily won.

Seneca Foods Corporation, a vegetable canner with plants in Wisconsin, is another company that has asked for a waiver. In its application, Seneca say it’s unclear, at best, if U.S. suppliers have the ability or willingness to expand their production in the long term to meet its annual demand for tin-plated steel.

But “clearly they cannot meet demand in the short term,” Seneca told Commerce officials. That means Seneca has to buy part of what it needs from overseas.

A person with knowledge of Seneca’s situation said the company would face a $2.25 million duty if the Commerce Department doesn’t approve its waiver request for the 11,000 metric tons of tinplate it has already agreed to purchase from China. The material is to be delivered this year and next, according to the waiver request. The person was not authorized to speak publicly and talked to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Seneca said it employs more than 400 people at its can-making plants in Wisconsin and Idaho and near its headquarters in New York’s Wayne County, where Trump bested Clinton. The company hasn’t said that layoffs are imminent if the waiver isn’t approved. Instead, it has said the tariffs would most likely come out of its bottom line, the person said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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