How to Make Trade Work for Working Men and Women in 2022 — changing the status quo is needed but unrealistic in the near future

In prior posts, I have reviewed how the existing global trading system is not working as intended because of the massive distortions created by different economic systems (in particular, the presence and growth on state directed economies). See, e.g., October 16, 2021:  What role China could play in WTO reform — possibilities are real but chances of a positive role are not, (“Trade and the WTO have obviously been highly beneficial to China and to many other Members. Nonetheless, China has been working hard not to have its economic system evolve to a market-based one. It has generally not pursued liberalization that benefits all versus favoring China. It insists on coexistence vs. convergence. It uses the consensus system to prevent evaluation of its practices which distort trade It has limited transparency of its actions and has engaged in actions against individual Members that are retaliatory and coercive. As the world’s largest exporter, China has a critical role in global trade. But the dangers Amb. Wolff has outlined in his speech where market principles and convergence are not the core values are manifesting themselves in the world marketplace as countries look for alternative approaches to deal with China’s trade distortions. Amb. Wolff’s speech outlines a number of ways that China can improve the functioning of the WTO and exhibit leadership in WTO reform. His speech is an important one which hopefully has had a receptive audience in China. Unfortunately, while there are some identified actions that China may take, it is unlikely that China will do anything to address the critical differences that its economic system poses to the survival of the global trading system.”); October 8, 2021: The gap between WTO activity and the needs of businesses and workers for the international trading system, (“The challenges at the WTO flow from some historical challenges (the preference of India to see no agreements imposing obligations on them, now supported by South Africa and others), from the growing divergence in views as to the purpose of the WTO, from the increased importance of non-market economies in the global trading system and the current failure of existing rules to address their distortions to global trade flows and competition, and the inability of a consensus system with 164 Members to move forward in a timely manner, if at all.”); May 1, 2021:  Alan Wolff’s vision for saving the WTO — aspirational but is it achievable?,; March 31, 2021:  “Blowing up the trading system” — Clyde Prestowitz’s suggested way for the world to move forward in light of China’s economic system,, March 29, 2021:  China and the WTO – remarks by Dennis C. Shea to the Coalition for a Prosperous America,; March 24, 2021:  When human rights violations create trade distortions — the case of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang,

The Biden Administration has been advocating a worker centric trade policy and has advanced domestic policies intended to improve U.S. competitiveness. But the challenges for working men and women in a trading system that doesn’t operate in fact on market principles and doesn’t have effective tools for addressing quickly distortions can be seen in the conflicts that arise when trade actions are taken by a single country. Remedies imposed (such as duties, quotas, etc.) will help the harmed industries and workers, although based on the level of difficulty of achieving a remedy, may occur only after the industry and its workers have suffered isignificant harm (layoffs, plant closings, reduced investment, etc.). At the same time, downstream users who have to compete with products from producers in other countries who have access to the distortively priced products view themselves as harmed by conditions of fair trade being imposed on inputs.

When a country like China engages in massive distortions through state direction, subsidization and other means, global excess capacity of extraordinary amounts can put global competitors in a long term struggle to survive despite not having caused the excess capacity. The Trump Administration imposed Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum to address U.S. national security concerns about the sectors with the primary cause of the problem being China’s actions and the global reactions to massive excess capacity. Similarly, long standing concerns about a range of practices by China led to the Trump Administration’s Section 301 investigation in 2018 and action when China did not address the U.S. concerns (with retaliation and counter actions following).

While many countries filed WTO disputes in 2018 on the 232 actions of the U.S. and a number of countries retaliated without WTO authorization (many claiming U.S. was a safeguard action permitting at least some retaliation immediately) and China challenged the 301 action, and the U.S. filed challenges to the retaliation taken by trading partners, those disputes remain before panels at the beginning of 2022, with indications that panel reports will issue during the first half of 2022 (232 challenges) or second half of 2022 (cases on retaliation).

The Biden Administration has continued both sets of remedies though has come up wth alternatives to tariffs for steel and aluminum with certain trading partners (EU, Japan in negotiations).

Because users of products subject to Section 232 or 301 tariffs look at the short term issue of cost competitiveness (and the consequences to their businesses and workers), importers have pursued broader product exclusions from tariffs or an end to the tariffs altogether. As has been true over the last three years, such efforts have support from some members of Congress.

Thus, conflict exists among different groups within the United States but flows directly from the massive market distortions flowing from activities by some countries for which there are no existing remedies. While seeking changes in global trading rules is an important avenue for change, such change will take years (a decade or more in all likelihood) to achieve, if any resolution is actually possible. The steel and aluminum sectors have been seeking a global solution to the massive excess capacity problem caused by China and others for years now with no demonstrable progress.

For workers in the industries directly affected by the massive distortions, they have been promised a trading system where trade will be guided by market principles and where distortions can be addressed through trade defense instruments or other tools or where temporary relief from imports can take place to address significant problems. Very clearly, the trading system has not ensured a level playing field in fact and has not addressed the massive distortions that exist for countries with state-controlled or directed economies like China. This has put an unreasonable burden on workers and their employers to pursue trade remedies in a system where there is no compensation for past harm and relief is not available until jobs are lost, companies have shuttered factories, reduced investment including in R&D.

A recent letter to the U.S. Congress from the United Steelworkers International President Thomas M. Conway on various duties (301, 232 and other) lays out the frustrations of working men and women who are in the direct line of attack from trade distortions abroad and their need for relief from such practices. The letter is embedded below.


The USW is a former client of my firm before my retirement. As a result, I am aware of the extraordinary effort they take to preserve jobs from the effects of market distortions in a wide array of manufacturing sectors in the U.S. The USW understandably views efforts to undermine trade actions to address distortions or to protect national security as contrary to the interests of working men and women.

While 232 and 301 relief have been subject to exclusion processes in the U.S., for users, such processes will work only when applicants are actually attempting to work with domestic producers or third country producers for alternative sources of supply (for either immediate supply or for supply in the coming months/years) and only where frivolous requests carry some costs for the applicant. Exclusions should only continue until an alternate source or sources of supply are found and shouldn’t frustrate efforts of domestic producers and their workers to expand offerings. The existence of a lower price from China or others should not be the basis for an exclusion where a domestic producer is producing or will product the specific product of interest.

The challenge for the United States and other WTO Members is to adopt rules that deliver a level playing field in fact, that prevent massive global excess capacity, that permit defensive action to be taken before plants are closed, workers laid off, investments postponed or cancelled and R&D reduced, and that compensate companies and workers injured by dumping, subsidization and other distortive practices to reduce the incentive to engage in such practices.

The WTO and Member governments can’t be surprised at the lack of support for the trading system from many working men and women when a fundamental promise of the system is not kept — competition based on market principles with remedies to address distortions in a timely manner. The WTO has never been able to move quickly. Many issues simply never get addressed because of the consensus system and the lack of agreement on fundamental purpose and principles by the existing 164 Members. Thus, one should expect continued concern among working men and women with the ability of the WTO to deliver market based competition with effective remedies for distortions.

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