Slapping import taxes on vehicles and parts coming from abroad alarmed parts of the auto industry Thursday, but the suggestion by the Trump Administration that it will consider up to a 25 percent tariff on foreign autos found some support among national and local UAW leaders.
“We’ve been screaming for some fair trade policy for decades all the way back to NAFTA when Bill Clinton was in the White House. It’s nice to have somebody on our side beside just Sherrod Brown and Marcy Kaptur,” said Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12, which represents Jeep workers at Fiat Chrysler’s Toledo Assembly Complex.
On Wednesday, President Trump tweeted: “There will be big news coming soon for our great American Autoworkers. After many decades of losing your jobs to other countries, you have waited long enough!”
That fueled rampant speculation as to what the President had in mind. But then Mr. Trump stated he had met with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to discuss the auto industry, then ordered a Section 232 investigation to look into whether imports — including autos, trucks, and auto parts — had damaged the American auto industry and in doing so, affected national security.
Such an investigation could result in tariffs of up to 25 percent based on the same "national security" grounds used in March to impose U.S. steel and aluminum duties.
Some industry analysts immediately said a tax on imported cars, trucks, and parts could result in higher vehicle prices, hurt consumers, and lead to auto industry layoffs. According to the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, about 8.7 million automobiles — or 44 percent of cars, light trucks, and sport utility vehicles sold in the United States — are imported.
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Fiat Chrysler declined comment on the issue Thursday, deferring to industry trade group the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
In a statement, the alliance said it is “confident that vehicle imports do not pose a national security risk to the U.S.” It urged the Trump Administration to support policies that remove barriers to free trade, and said it would work with the President to achieve that goal.
The Jeep plant, which has about 3,200 UAW members, gets most of its parts from nearby sources and is thought not to be affected much by imports.
But Mr. Baumhower said he believes fair trade has yet to occur between the United States and its foreign competitors.
“We've always felt we’ve been on the wrong side of the trade issue. Have you been to Fostoria lately? They used to have 1,000 workers at the Honeywell plant there, but it all went to Mexico and nobody cared,” he said.
“Tariffs? I applaud the concept. Now the details, that would be for somebody else to work out,” Mr. Baumhower added.
Dennis Earl, president of UAW Local 14, which represents about 1,800 active members at General Motors Toledo Transmission plant where front and rear wheel drive six-speed transmissions and rear wheel drive eight-speed transmissions are built, also thinks the United States has been somewhat lax in protecting the nation’s auto workers.
“Personally, I believe we need a level playing field. I'm not against trade agreements. But they have to have the same health standards, the same wage standards, the same labor rules that we have,” Mr. Earl said. “That's my concern. I think they've been one-sided up to now.”
In a previously scheduled media roundtable Thursday, UAW International President Dennis Williams told reporters he didn’t know that Mr. Trump was considering tariffs. “I’m not too sure how he came to that conclusion,” Mr. Williams said.
But the UAW president said the United States should have been looking at imports a long time ago, and that the UAW will be interested in what Mr. Trump does next.
“I’m not going to say I’m 100 percent behind it because I don’t know the mechanics, all the details behind it,” Mr. Williams said.
“I don't know many Republican congressmen who are aligned with [Mr. Trump] on trade. In my experience, Republican Congresses have totally ignored the needs of working men and women in this country,” he added.
Tariffs, the UAW president said, have worked in other economic sectors, such as agriculture. So maybe it is time to look at them for the auto industry with vehicle production continuing to rise in lower-wage countries like China, Mexico, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
“It’s got to be balanced,” Mr. Williams said. “But I think the American worker has been handed a short stick for a long, long time on trade.”
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