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How Trump’s tariffs changed the fates of these two factories

How are President Trump's tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum affecting manufacturers and workers? At two different Missouri factories, there are two very different stories. Mid Continent Steel and Wire, which makes nails, has already eliminated 100 jobs. But about 60 miles away at Magnitude 7 Metals, the reopened aluminum smelter is back up and running with hundreds of jobs. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The White House confirmed yesterday that President Trump is considering raising even more tariffs on China. Now that he's already begun to deliver on his promise to impose other tariffs, the question is, with Chinese retaliation against American imports, whether they help or hurt the U.S. economy.

    John Yang reports from Southeast Missouri, where adjacent factories are going in different directions, and officials are pointing at the tariffs.

    It is part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the "NewsHour."

  • John Yang:

    One of the production lines at Mid Continent Steel and Wire in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. This is how the factory is supposed to look and sound, machines humming, metal clanking, workers busy. They make more nails here than anywhere else in the United States.

    But walk across the street to another Mid Continent building, and the difference is stark.

    Chris Pratt is Mid Continent's operations and general manager.

    If we had been sitting here six months ago, what would this be like?

  • Chris Pratt:

    Noisy, full of people, activity, nails being produced, just what we wanted it to be.

  • John Yang:

    That all stopped at 5:00 p.m. June 14. Two weeks earlier, Mid Continent had raised prices to cover the cost of President Trump's 25 percent tariff on imported steel.

    But, so far, there are no new tariffs on imported nails. So, almost immediately, customers across America canceled orders, instead buying nails from overseas, especially China.

    George Skarich is vice president for sales.

  • George Skarich:

    We literally in the second week lost 50 percent of the orders that were currently on file. By the third week, the order file was literally off 70 percent.

  • John Yang:

    So far, the company has eliminated about 100 of its 500 jobs. This line is already running at only 50 percent capacity.

    Machine operator Diane Brogdon has worked at Mid Continent for 12 years.

  • Diane Brogdon:

    It's the workers that's paying the price now that's getting laid off and have to go find another job. And some of them won't be able to.

    Some of these people, this is the only income they got, just like me. This is the only income I got. And I got to put another daughter through school. You know, it's going to be hard.

  • John Yang:

    And company officials warn the tariffs' impact may force them to eliminate even more jobs.

  • Chris Pratt:

    It's picking winners and losers. And the losers are the end manufacturers of finished goods and products. It doesn't seem right. I mean, if we're going to — you know, if we're going to make America great, let's make sure we make all America great.

  • John Yang:

    If things keep going the way they're going now, what is the future?

  • Chris Pratt:

    Well, if they continue at what they're doing now, there's no future for this company.

  • John Yang:

    And no future for Mid Continent could spell trouble for this community.

    The county's unemployment rate is 6.6 percent, significantly higher than the Missouri rate of 3.5 percent and the 4 percent national rate.

    Phil Bennett repairs the machinery. He's worked at Mid Continent for four years.

    Are you worried about your job?

  • Phil Bennett:

    Absolutely.

  • John Yang:

    How worried?

  • Phil Bennett:

    Wake up every morning with an empty feeling, not knowing if I'm going to walk in that door and say, hey, we're no longer in business.

  • John Yang:

    That fear comes from a tariff President Trump says is needed to protect American jobs. This is a county where the president won almost 80 percent of the vote.

  • Diane Brogdon:

    Yes, I still believe in what he's doing, and, yes, if he runs again, I will vote for him again.

  • John Yang:

    But do you feel like he's hurting the people who put him in?

  • Diane Brogdon:

    He's not meaning to hurt the people, but, in the long run, he is.

  • John Yang:

    But drive about 60 miles east from Poplar Bluff, and it's a very different story. An aluminum smelter is reopening after it was closed in 2016, when the owners went bankrupt.

    So many people are applying for the new jobs that they're having trouble keeping up.

    Magnitude 7 Metals sits on the banks of the Mississippi River in New Madrid County, Missouri. When the plant's previous owner, Noranda Aluminum, closed up shop, some 900 people lost their jobs.

    Local police and emergency service budgets were cut. The county's schools took a hit.

  • Steve Rusche:

    This was like a desert on a night.

  • John Yang:

    Steve Rusche was one of nine former Noranda employees who kept the facility in working condition, hoping it would reopen.

  • Steve Rusche:

    There was nothing going on here. There were actually wild animals running through here, dark, cold, wet. Looked like a total loss.

  • John Yang:

    Rusche is now chief operating officer of Magnitude 7. The company bought the smelter, which produces raw aluminum, at a bankruptcy auction.

    CEO Bob Prusak said nearly all the other bidders wanted to sell it for scrap. He had a different plan.

  • Bob Prusak:

    We understand the commodity industry. The aluminum industry is very volatile and cyclical. So we bought it, honestly, hoping that things would align in the future that would enable us to restart.

  • John Yang:

    Prusak said President Trump's 10 percent tariff on imported aluminum was a key factor.

  • Bob Prusak:

    They were extremely important and are extremely important for us going forward.

    For aluminum producers, I like to say it puts us on a level playing field.

  • John Yang:

    These machines restarted on June 13. Magnitude 7 has hired about 300 people so far, and plans to bring on around 200 more in the next year.

    They hope to have two of their three massive production lines back up and running by the end of December. The 2016 closing hit both the community and the workers hard, says Kathee Brown. She had been with the previous owner, Noranda, for almost 30 years. Her father and brother had also worked here.

  • Kathee Brown:

    That first week, it seemed like you were on vacation. After that, you know, I'm not going to see these people again. The reality set in, that it actually wasn't open any longer.

  • John Yang:

    But now she's back. She's constantly asked about jobs, even at the local Wal-Mart.

    When the smelter closed, Matt Foster lost his job of 13 years. He was one of the first workers back. When he returned, his wife noticed something different about him.

  • Matt Foster:

    I was humming to myself packing my lunch box. She said — and I'm not the humming type. And she said, are you over there humming? And I said, yes, I am. I can't wait. And I said, if I ever say — complain about having to go to work, just kick me in the tail.

  • John Yang:

    The president's been taking a victory lap on his tariffs, including a visit to a reopened steel mill in nearby Granite City, Illinois.

    If you had a few minutes to talk to the president, based on your experience here, what would you say to him?

  • Bob Prusak:

    First and foremost, thank you very much, Mr. President. It was, honestly for some people, not a popular decision, what he made, but a big thank you. Like I said, it enables us to level the playing field.

  • John Yang:

    In Poplar Bluff, Chris Pratt of Mid Continent would have a different message.

  • Chris Pratt:

    I would like to sit down with him and explain to him exactly what's going on with our 500 jobs and our local economy, and ask him to do what he has the power to do, which is sign 24 exclusions that we need to save 500 jobs in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

  • John Yang:

    The company has asked the Commerce Department for those exclusions, arguing there's not enough domestic supply of the steel they need.

    Mid Continent vice president of sales George Skarich:

  • George Skarich:

    Why would you be in such a hurry to do something that may have a positive impact on some, but a negative consequence on others? And maybe those unintended consequences might even be worse than what you're doing on the other side.

  • John Yang:

    Two factories, 60 miles apart, both affected by President Trump's tariffs, one a hive of activity, the other hoping it doesn't have to turn off the lights for good.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Southeast Missouri.

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