LONDON — Britain’s failure to end a long-running steel dispute with Washington is putting jobs and livelihoods at risk, trade unions have warned.
The national federation of trade unions in England and Wales — alongside the three labor unions representing steelworkers — urged the U.K.’s trade department to act after punishing tariffs on British steel manufacturers bit harder.
Since the start of this month, the Donald Trump-era tariffs on steel imports into the U.S. have no longer applied to the EU under a deal between Brussels and Washington. But the U.S. has refused to do the same deal with Britain while the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland remains uncertain — putting U.K. steel at a competitive disadvantage.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said roles could disappear in the sector unless Britain seals a deal with Washington.
“We are concerned by reports that the U.S. may be stalling due to the U.K.’s failure to honor commitments under the Northern Ireland protocol,” she told POLITICO. “Ministers must act in good faith on the international agreements they have made as this is putting U.K. jobs at risk.”
Alun Davies, the national officer of steelworkers’ union Community, said the government must “urgently” strike an agreement to remove the tariffs. “Our steel industry was already at a competitive disadvantage due to higher electricity prices than our European competitors, and the continuation of these tariffs only worsens the problem,” he added.
“The British steel industry is the backbone of the U.K. economy, providing quality jobs, supporting communities and supporting key industries. We need the government to properly support the industry by creating a level playing field.”
The Unite union, which also represents steelworkers, said the failure to resolve the tariff issue was “potentially disastrous” for the sector. National Officer Harish Patel said the U.S. market is a massive one for U.K. steel, with the industry exporting millions of tons every year.
Before Trump imposed the tariffs under the guise of national security, the U.K. in 2017 sent 350,000 tons of steel to the U.S. In 2020 that had plummeted to 200,000 tons.
“The U.K. government must immediately ensure that the tariff on U.K. steel is lifted,” Patel said. “If it is unable to do so it must explain the full reasons why the EU secured the lifting of the tariff but the U.K. has failed.”
Ross Murdoch, the national officer for the GMB union, said: “The tariffs on U.K. steel exports represent a critical threat to the future of our industry. The government’s failure to negotiate the same terms as the EU’s agreement is already hurting steel, and without a remedy our exports risk being uncompetitive. Ministers must secure agreement to lift the tariffs as a matter of utmost urgency.”
International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan held talks on the issue in Washington last month but failed to secure a breakthrough. She invited U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo for further talks in London this month, although she has not received a response to the invitation. Some on the U.S. side expect a trip by Raimondo will not to go ahead this month and for the can to be kicked down the road.
The U.K. trade department said ministers are working to resolve the dispute as soon as possible, and pointed to unrelated government support for the steel sector since 2013. It also reiterated the threat that Britain could up its own retaliation tariffs on U.S. goods.
“We recognize the vital role the steel sector plays in our economy, and our priority is to resolve this dispute to the benefit of workers and businesses on both sides of the Atlantic,” a spokesperson said.