Donald Trump slammed by Port Talbot steel workers – ‘Tariffs will kill our town’
The pride Port Talbot’s steel workers have for their town burns almost as brightly as their blast furnaces.
But US President Donald Trump’s decision to impose a 25% tax on European steel threatens to extinguish the community spirit completely.
The struggling South Wales town has already spent years on the precipice.
Indian owners Tata Steel took over the Port Talbot plant from Corus in 2007. In March 2016, Tata announced it was selling all of its UK business, just months after cutting 750 jobs.
Port Talbot’s high street is like a ghost town, and barely offers credible job alternatives for the area’s youngsters.
Payday loan stores and boarded-up fast-food shops litter the main shopping area, reflecting the town’s 5.9% unemployment rate – 1.5% higher than the national average.
Now, after years of Tory austerity and a lack of government support – and as Trump today begins his controversial four-day visit to the UK – Tata’s workers have sent a message to the President that’s tougher than their slabs of steel.
In a letter to Trump they have warned his tariffs could be the final nail in the coffin for the plant and the whole area.
“The stuff we sell for the US market can’t be made in America anyway, so this is not only going to wreck the UK industry – it’s also bad for the US economy,” says Alan Coombes, who has worked at the plant for 36 years.
“The American market is something we rely on. Theresa May needs to stand up for UK people and business rather than continually burying her head in the sand. Inviting Trump to the UK with open arms while watching our communities being destroyed is shameful.
“I don’t think we should be even inviting him over. He’s dangerous.”
Dad-of-three Alan is the chairman of Tata’s biggest union, Community, and joined forces with vice chairman Gary Keogh, 54, and senior representative Mark Davies, 52, to put pressure on the Government ahead of Trump’s arrival.
About 10% of Tata Steel Europe’s exports go to the US, and 4,000 people in Port Talbot are employed by the multinational company.
“If the Government continues to kill the steel industry, it will kill this town,” says Gary, whose son Luke, 22, also works at the plant.
“But the Government doesn’t care. The job of steelworkers is not just in the community, it is the community. It’s the heartbeat of South Wales. It’s our be-all and end-all. We’re nothing without it. It’s who we are. In the last couple of years it’s been job reduction after job reduction.
“Once upon a time, everybody had a family member working here.”
Mark nods in agreement over his coffee at one of the town’s surviving cafes, between a bookies’ and a closed clothing shop.
“There’s a dark cloud over the works,” Gary goes on. “The uncertainty affects people every day: it affects marriages, families, everyone.”
Some political commentators were quick to point out the irony of the town that relies so much on EU funding voting Leave with a 56% majority in the 2016 referendum.
But this is all part of the frustration and anger the people of Port Talbot feel.
Alan sums it up: “We voted to Leave not because we’re anti-European, it’s because we’re anti-austerity. It was a protest vote, a cry for help. But the Government is still not listening to us.”
Mark also has a son just starting his career at the factory – 21-year-old Callum – but fears for his future.
“It’s no longer a job for life,” he says. “We’re passing on the baton to future generations, but we’re fearful the baton will no longer exist if our kids have kids. Where will they work? We don’t know.”
Just last month the US imposed the tariff expected to decimate the UK’s £360million annual steel exports across the Atlantic.
It is this which prompted the 2,000-strong union to write to Trump explaining how hard Port Talbot will be hit. Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, whose Aberavon constituency includes the Port Talbot steelworks, handed over the letter to the US Embassy’s trade official last month.
It stated: “The impact of US tariffs could affect the future viability of the plant and devastate the surrounding communities.”
Mr Kinnock said: “The 25% tariffs may be designed to prevent China’s government-backed illegal dumping, but they are instead damaging Britain – America’s closest ally.
“Will Theresa May make this point to Trump, or will she continue to hold hands with a President whose scatter-gun policies are crippling the UK economy?”
Manufacturers also urged Mrs May to use her meetings with the President to back British industry.
UK Steel director general Gareth Stace said: “All 31,000 people that work directly in the UK steel sector will this week be looking to the Prime Minister for her support.
“It is essential the PM takes the opportunity to clearly state the UK’s complete opposition to these tariffs, that they are contrary to the rules of free trade, harmful to both the UK and the US economies, and not the solution to the problems of global overcapacity in the steel sector.”
Back in Port Talbot, Gary believes Trump has been naive in blindly following his campaign pledges to protect American jobs supposedly lost to international trade.
While protecting the US steel industry might help its workers in the short-term, American manufacturers could face higher costs if they are unable to make cheap steel in the US.
“It’s hard to see any winners in this trade war,” Alan says.
Gary agrees: “No winners.” But it looks like Port Talbot’s steelworkers will, once again, be the biggest losers.
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