Steel firms urge U.S. to continue hard line


WASHINGTON -- Now that Big Steel has foreign imports on the run with successful trade litigation, it doesn't want the government to mess it up by making a deal with other countries.

"We absolutely oppose any such efforts," Curtis H. Barnette, chairman and chief executive of Bethlehem Steel Corp., told the Congressional Steel Caucus yesterday. Saying foreign companies and their governments have "launched a massive propaganda campaign" to try to short-circuit the trade cases, he said steel companies do not want to compromise.

"We'll continue to urge that U.S. dumping and subsidy laws be enforced to the letter," he told the group, which consists of 75 members of Congress from steel-producing districts.

But on the same day that Mr. Barnette was making his plea on behalf of the American Iron and Steel Institute, the European Community requested formal talks under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). EC Trade Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan said that recently imposed duties were "unjustified on economic grounds."

The U.S. Commerce Department has handed steel companies major victories in recent months, imposing tentative duties on most steel imports. These duties could become final in June if approved by other government agencies.

Coupled with a general upturn in the economy, many industry observers said big steel companies, including Bethlehem, were poised to move into the black after years of losses. This would be good news for Bethlehem's Sparrows Point mill in Baltimore County, which employs 5,800 workers.

Past administrations have attempted to tackle the problem of dumping in the United States by striking deals with foreign countries that would limit the amount of foreign steel imports. But U.S. steel producers have argued that these were unsatisfactory because steel prices remained unfairly low.

So concerned are the steel companies that the Clinton administration might make a deal with foreign governments, the top executives of six of the largest steel companies sent a joint letter to President Clinton in February urging him not to be swayed by theforeign officials.

However, Mr. Barnette said after his presentation that the industry's fears were based on the actions of past administrations and not on any statements made by present officials. "We have every confidence that they will support the trade cases," he said.

Mr. Barnette also said problems with underfunded pension plans would not be solved by increased fees or premiums to support the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a federal corporation formed to insure private pensions.

Lynn R. Williams, president of the United Steelworkers of America, said one solution to the underfunded pensions was for the federal government to impose a tax on each ton of steel sold in the United States, regardless of its origins. Money from that tax would go to fund the pensions.

However, Ralph Boswell, chairman of the Steel Manufacturers Association, said his members, which are primarily "mini-mill" operators, do not generally have underfunded pensions. "We would be asked to subsidize someone else's problem," he said.

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