This remote factory is where Trump may finally draw the line on trade


HAWESVILLE, Ky. — When Bill Hughes went to fight in Iraq in 2003, members of his Army unit lined their vehicles with scrap metal, sandbags and bulletproof vests to protect themselves from roadside bombs. By the time his younger brother Ryan Young was in Iraq in 2008, the vehicles were made of a high-purity aluminum alloy that was much more effective at absorbing the blast.

“At the beginning of the Iraq War, the Humvees were folding up like pop cans,” Hughes said. “It was a really big deal until they started putting the different metals in.”

Today, Hughes and Young work side by side here at the last U.S. smelter that makes the high-purity aluminum used in armored vehicles, sons of a region where jobs in the metal industry, ubiquitous for decades, have become a rapidly disappearing way of life. Hawesville’s Century Aluminum Co. plant constantly teeters on the edge of shutting down, typical in an industry where a glut of cheap metal from China has forced many plants to close.

But hope came to Hawesville in April, when President Trump announced that his administration was considering restricting imports of foreign-forged aluminum in the name of national security, arguing that domestic plants needed to be protected to ensure that the country can make its own war machines. “When that come out, there was a buzz in the area. You could just see the excitement on people’s faces,” said Hughes, 34.

A decision by the Trump administration to use national security to protect an industry would be among the most dramatic — and risky — moves in the president’s trade agenda, which seeks to limit what he regards as unfair foreign competition. While intervention could be a boon for Hawesville, it could raise prices for other customers and companies — including the federal government, which ultimately buys the armored vehicles and fighter jets made from the aluminum.

And amid the debate over how far the government should go to protect certain industries in the era of global competition and technological change, some trade and industry experts are questioning whether the administration is simply using national security as an excuse for economic protectionism. The decision — based on a Commerce Department investigation — will come out in June, Trump said in a tweet Saturday night. “Will take more action if necessary,” he wrote.

The debate over aluminum’s future in the United States comes after 20 years of China flooding the global market with the natural resource, depressing prices to a level where few U.S. companies can compete. The United States has gone from having 23 operational aluminum smelters in 1993 to just five today, with only two running at full capacity.


How Chinese overcapacity hits American workers

ALUMINIUM smelting is sweaty work. Inside the Hawesville plant of Century, an American aluminium producer, it can get so hot that the workers lie outside in the blazing summer sun to cool off. Dennis Harbath, the plant manager, oversees operations. He is worried about the workers. “They have mental fatigue,” he says.

The source of the stress is a number scrawled on a wall in white chalk. That is the dollar price of a tonne of aluminium, set on the London Metal Exchange (LME). The workers keep track of it on their smartphones. Their wives ask about it, too. “It’s hard to stay on the LME rollercoaster when trying to support a family,” says one.

A few years ago, they weren’t particularly aware of the price, says Andy Meserve, the local union president. That changed after 2015, when the price plunged to below $1,500 per tonne, prompting Century to shut down 60% of the plant’s capacity and lay off hundreds of workers. The whole industry was affected. Of America’s five remaining aluminium smelters, only two are running at full capacity. There were 14 in 2011.

Dips and dives are always a feature of commodity markets. A fall in American primary production could be part of a long-term trend towards recycled aluminium. Coal powers aluminium production; workers complain of being strangled by environmental regulation. But Mr Harbath thinks something fishy is going on. Why, he asks, did his plant have to curtail capacity when its energy costs are lower than in China?

The Trump administration is suspicious, too. On April 26th it triggered an investigation into the aluminium industry to defend it against “unfair trade practices and other abuses”. A public hearing on June 22nd will give the industry the chance to air its grievances. (A similar investigation into steel is looming.)

There is some substance to the worries. The Chinese government doles out cheap loans to its industry, encouraging overcapacity. Its output has soared in recent years. Since China joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001, its aluminium production has risen from 14% of the global total to 54% in 2016.

Its size gives it huge influence over the global price, which fell in 2015 when Chinese demand did not keep pace with its gargantuan supply. Exporting overcapacity makes for better domestic politics than cutting it, given the potential for job losses. Without production curbs, analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch predict the global aluminium market could be oversupplied by 8% by 2020.

The Trump administration is trying to seem tough. Its official investigation invokes Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, which allows the president to impose trade restrictions if he suspects imports are threatening national security. When workers at the Hawesville plant saw the news of Mr Trump’s investigation, the plant hummed with excitement. Perhaps the action would restore those lost jobs.

To them, the link between aluminium and national security seemed natural. Wilbur Ross, Mr Trump’s commerce secretary, mentioned that there was only one American smelter left that makes high-purity metal of the sort that the armed forces need. That one plant is in Hawesville; Messrs Harbath and Meserve both brim with pride when they describe their high-purity aluminium. A sliver of different metal the size of a child’s finger can throw off the blend of an aluminium pod with the capacity of a small swimming pool. “It’s as close as you can get to marrying art and science,” boasts Mr Harbath.

They worry that foreign competition is crushing the life out of American supply. Closed smelters take more than a year to restart, and few ever do. Of the workers laid off at the Hawesville plant in October 2015, 200 had stayed on a recall list, poised to come back if the plant returned to full capacity. Now there are only 112 on the list; 88 have drifted into retirement or other careers. Once there are no more American smelters left, the workers warn that foreigners will charge whatever they want.