- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2001

The United Steelworkers of America this year hit on a novel strategy to convince the Bush administration to open the way for curbs on imported steel: make itself politically indispensable to the new Republican president.
Despite the strong free-trade stance of the White House, the steelworkers union this year managed to win White House support for its cause by working the issue at the grass roots, and by playing a savvy Washington game.
This month, rank-and-file steelworkers will flock to Washington for hearings at the International Trade Commission on the proposed import cutbacks. Already, they are still sending thousands of letters to Congress and the president in support of trade barriers.
The steelworkers are also flexing union muscle in states that matter most to President Bush's political future. They want the president to follow through on a promise he made this summer to examine their claims that foreign steel makers are flooding the U.S. market with cheep steel.
Mr. Bush's efforts could well score some political points in a number of key states.
Retired union members are all over states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, which President Bush narrowly lost in the 2000 elections. They are also sprinkled throughout Florida, the state that ultimately ushered Mr. Bush into the White House. These states will be just as important for Mr. Bush in 2004.
"We've got 600,000 retirees, dependents and spouses out there," said Gary Hubbard, spokesman for the steelworkers union, which has strong ties to the Democrats. "Like all retirees, some migrate to low-cost retirement communities in Florida."
The pressure on the administration will continue, Mr. Hubbard said. Rallies, meetings with elected officials and letter-writing campaigns are all part of the union's plan to make itself matter to a Republican president.
Following pleas from workers and companies, Mr. Bush agreed in June to investigate claims that imported steel is driving the American industry out of business. This process is likely to lead to some form of import restrictions by early next year.
The companies believe they are the victims of "unfair trading," in which foreign companies, trying to kill the U.S. industry, dump subsidized steel onto the American market.
Mr. Bush promised continued support for the industry at a rally at a Pennsylvania steel plant last month.
The June decision was a historic victory for the industry, and the steelworkers union in particular, observers said. They urged the Clinton administration without success for nearly six years to take the same step.
Dave Phelps, president of the American Institute for International Steel, which opposes import curbs, glumly admits that the steelworkers union had more than electoral strength in key states. They have a working-class credibility that the White House wants.
"They can help develop a Ronald Reagan-like blue-collar appeal for Bush," Mr. Phelps said.
To help make inroads with the president, the union along with six steel companies retained two well-connected lobbyists: Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman, and Ed Gillespie, Mr. Bush's inaugural spokesman.
Their services which cost about $90,000 per month, according to the Center for Responsive Politics gave this union-industry coalition, known as Stand Up for Steel, a vital conduit to the White House.
The lobbyists provided the administration with the standard information about how 23 U.S. companies were in or out of bankruptcy. But the White House also learned that steel retirees who rely on their old companies for pensions live in such crucial states as Florida, according to sources close to the issue.
The industry and union also secured high-level meetings with U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, Secretary of Commerce Donald L. Evans and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill.
"When they heard from the workers and saw the data, they were moved to action," Mr. Gillespie said.
But the White House also appreciated that union allies often matter far more in closely contested states, especially in the Midwest, because they are willing to get their hands dirty in a campaign, one observer said.
"Their activities putting up yard signs, communicating with their members are invaluable to candidates," said Steven Weiss, an analyst with the Center for Responsive Politics.
Ed Sarpolus, a pollster with Lansing, Mich.-based EPIC/MRA, a statewide polling firm, said Mr. Bush's action on behalf of the steel industry may win points with working-class voters in the next election.
"It will appease some Republican-minded union workers, but not the hard-core Democrats," he said.


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