COLUMBUS, Ohio — You might think that managers and workers at Banner Metals would be up in arms over the Trump administration’s trade policies. After all, tariffs on imported steel and aluminum have pushed raw-material prices up and margins down, forcing the company to delay plans to purchase a new $1 million cutting machine and hire two new employees to operate it.
But the reaction at the plant is based on more than self-interest. “I’m not looking at what’s best for Banner right now,” said Bronson Jones, a part-owner of the company and its chief executive. “I’m looking at what’s best for the national economy. The U.S. has been taken advantage of for too long.”
That proposition, tracing a volatile political fault line, is frequently encountered on the factory floor here, a few miles from this prosperous city’s gleaming downtown.
Casey Jackson, a maintenance technician, said he would support the tariffs even if they cost him personally. “If it comes out of my paycheck, so be it,” he said. “You got to look at the big picture. That tiny bit of sacrifice we make will create jobs.”
While the manufacturing sector is on the upswing nationally — factories have added 344,000 jobs since the beginning of 2017 — there is an abiding sense of siege among factory workers and executives alike, of having been shortchanged in the trade equation.
Mr. Trump, in departing from the traditional Republican embrace of free trade, struck a chord in 2016, carrying this battleground state by eight percentage points. And the workers on the factory floor underscore his reservoir of blue-collar support — even as he pursues a trade conflict in which key American industrial sectors could be hit. For them, there is still a larger wrong that must be righted.
Divisions on the issue remain stark. In a poll conducted by SurveyMonkey for The New York Times in early July, 76 percent of Republicans supported the metal tariffs, while 79 percent of Democrats opposed them. Nearly half of workers with a high school diploma or some college said they approved of the tariffs, compared with 39 percent of college-educated workers.
As Mr. Jackson, a 34-year-old Air Force veteran, sees it, the current trade war recalls past military conflicts. “We had victory gardens in World War II,” he said during a break between shifts, which run from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and then from 4:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. “I know the tariffs have an impact on us, but I don’t think it was a mistake.”
Besides the 20 to 25 percent increase in raw material prices in recent months, Mr. Jones has found himself scrambling to line up shipments of the steel and aluminum that Banner’s two-story-tall stamping machines turn into parts for aircraft brakes and seats. Bigger manufacturers have been hoarding metal supplies, he said, ordering larger amounts to get ahead of rising prices and leaving smaller firms like Banner at a disadvantage.
“We were accustomed to four weeks’ lead time, but now it can be as long as 16 to 20 weeks,” he said. In response, Banner has been flying in steel from an Austrian supplier, an expensive proposition when the price of airfreight and the new tariffs are taken into account.
With about 70 percent of Banner’s business coming from the aerospace industry, Mr. Jones can’t easily switch metal suppliers. Anything going into an airplane has to be carefully certified beforehand, restricting Banner’s options when raw material is delayed.
“With aerospace, you can’t pick up and move it,” Mr. Jones said.
Mr. Jones had planned to buy a laser cutting apparatus that would be able to do some production currently outsourced, but pressure on profit margins forced him to postpone the order in May. He even visited the manufacturer while the machine was under construction and had a spot picked out for it at the plant.
“It was like going to see your new car in the showroom,” he said. “But with steel prices up, we could see the writing on the wall.”
Nevertheless, while Mr. Jones isn’t always comfortable with what the president may say or put on Twitter, he likes the overall strategy.
“He’s going for the jugular, which is typical Trump style,” he said. “I’m not used to it, and it’s not a presidential style we are accustomed to. But he’s the only president who’s taken a significant stance on trade, and we need a brash approach.”
The scope of the trade tensions has been widening — 25 percent tariffs on imported steel went into effect this spring, and the White House imposed duties on hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese imports this month. The Commerce Department has also been examining whether imports of foreign cars pose a national security threat, a prelude to protectionist steps in the auto industry.
The steel tariffs have resulted in the creation of some new jobs. After going cold in 2015, for example, the blast furnaces are restarting at U.S. Steel’s plant in Granite City, Ill., in large part because of higher prices for the tubular steel churned out there.
But a vast majority of economists argue that over all, tariffs cost more jobs than they create. And there are many more metal consumers out there, like Banner, than metal producers like U.S. Steel.
Despite the perception of an uneven playing field in trade, Banner has been thriving.
Founded in 1921 as a tool-and-die producer, the company has added eight workers in the last couple of years, bringing its work force to 38. Demand from customers like Boeing, Airbus and United Technologies has been strong.
“We do parts for everything that flies,” said Rick Sayre, Banner’s vice president for engineering. “It’s been a good run.”
Even though manufacturing accounts for only 8.5 percent of the nation’s work force, compared with 15 percent a quarter-century ago, it continues to offer opportunity at plants like Banner’s.
Machine operators earn $15 to $20 an hour, and experienced tool-and-die makers can earn twice that. There are also avenues for advancement — Mr. Jones himself started in the shipping department at Banner 24 years ago, earning $8 an hour as a quality-assurance inspector. He eventually rose into management and bought the company with two partners in 2013.
“We believe in promoting from within, and we encourage people to go back to college,” he said. In some cases, Banner will pay for additional training for employees.
Even as the talk of a trade war has intensified, and new duties go into effect, Mr. Jones said he saw the Trump administration’s moves as part of a negotiating strategy, not a fundamental move away from free trade, which he said he supported.
“I don’t think hundreds of billions in tariffs are going into effect with other countries, but it sure gets their attention,” he said. “I don’t think it will all stick, and they’ll meet in the middle. It’s short-term pain for long-term gain.”
The results of the survey for The Times echoed Mr. Jones’s analysis. Among Americans who said they approved of the tariffs, a third said they thought Mr. Trump’s approach to trade would be “helpful in the long term but harmful in the short term.”
Mr. Sayre concurred — with one caveat. “I never cared much for the way Trump does it, but he’s doing O.K. as far as I’m concerned,” he said. What exactly doesn’t he like? “The way he bullies everybody and bends the truth,” Mr. Sayre said.
Back on the factory floor, Mr. Jackson said he was comfortable with the president’s game plan. “It’s aggressive, it’s tough, and he won’t back down,” Mr. Jackson said. “Using trade as a bargaining chip will help someone else put food on the table.”
James Ford, another hourly employee, who is a production supervisor, jumped into the conversation. “I like that Trump doesn’t sugarcoat anything,” he said. “People get offended very easily by somebody being direct.”
Other workers, like Todd Grizzle, a 25-year-old maintenance technician, said he could see both sides of the tariff debate. But his memories of the closing of Columbus Casting on the city’s South Side are still fresh.
Once the nation’s largest foundry, the century-old complex employed 800 people when it filed for bankruptcy in 2016. “There was a flood of people looking for work,” Mr. Grizzle said.
The red-brick factory, which looked like something out of Dickens and covers 90 acres, is being demolished. The lesson that Mr. Grizzle said he had learned was that American jobs needed to be protected.
“I like the idea of the U.S. having allies,” he said. “But if this can bring more jobs back to America, that’s a good thing.”
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