Wednesday, May 28, 2008

American steel makes a comeback

According to the WaPo, steel is experiencing a resurgence in America. On the back of the declining dollar, skyrocketing demand overseas, and leaner plants, Amex's steel index has grown by 50% annually for the past half-decade. The Post also mentions that organized labor's diminished role at the plants might have something to do with American steel's competitiveness:

Part of the credit for steel's rebirth goes to the pragmatism of the United Steelworkers. The union become a supporter of mill consolidations, agreed to more job flexibility in labor contracts and went along with a move to replace guaranteed pensions with defined-contribution plans. The union was able to extract agreements from owners to streamline companies' management ranks and set aside a share of profits to fund health-care and prescription drug plans for retirees and their families who had lost them in the wave of bankruptcies. [...]

The mills themselves emerged much leaner and more technologically advanced, allowing many fewer workers to make roughly the same amount of steel.

Back in the 1970s, there were more than 500,000 steel workers in the United States, a number that has been reduced by more than two-thirds, even as the number of workers has edged up in recent years, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute. The amount of labor required to manufacture a ton of steel has gone from roughly 12 man-hours to about 1.2, analysts say. Steel workers continue to be well paid, union officials say, earning $65,000 a year or more, when incentive pay, profit sharing and a modest amount of overtime are included.

"Labor has become much less of a factor in the cost of steel," Rhody said. "That particular part of the equation has equalized, making domestic steel much more competitive."

Astute recent historians might remember that Bush slapped some tariffs on steel in 2002, but those restrictions were lifted by 2003. However, the Post article doesn't mention the voluntary export restraints that China placed on its steel industry, which likely boosted the ability of American firms to sell their steel on world markets. I'm not sure what the extent of these barriers were, or if they're still in place.

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