WASHINGTON -- Steelworkers from across the country took part in a day of organized lobbying Wednesday, urging their members of Congress to back quotas on cheap steel imports blamed for numerous layoffs.
The visits came two days before the Commerce Department was to announce whether it found evidence that Russia, Brazil and Japan have illegally dumped steel in U.S. markets at prices dramatically below production costs.
"I think that the majority of Congress are interested in what constituents have to say," said Walt Jones, a 26-year veteran of the steel mills from Granite City, Ill. "We have a group here to let them know how our members and our communities feel."
Later, steelworkers spread out on the National Mall sheets of steel shaped like ships to symbolize imported goods. The steel sheets were signed by individuals from steel-producing communities.
Steelworkers were joined by rubber tire makers and other crafts represented by the United Steelworkers of America. A few hundred union activists came by bus, car or airplane to push for quotas.
The steel imports have pushed down U.S. steel prices and have been blamed for 10,000 layoffs and three company bankruptcies.
The industry had made a comeback after cutting more than 300,000 jobs and investing more than $50 billion since the 1980s to raise their plants to worldwide standards. Company executives and union leaders say they cannot continue to compete if foreign producers dump their products in the United States.
Illegal dumping has not yet been proven, but the government has found reason to believe that last year's import surge could threaten U.S. steel producers. Friday's preliminary ruling from Commerce could be a step toward imposing dumping tariffs on imports.
The steelworkers union wants to go further and has sought monthly limitations on imports. Some lawmakers from steel-producing states have introduced quota bills and urged steelworkers to be relentless in pressing their congressional members to back the legislation.
"Be firm, but never let your eye leave the eye of the person you are talking to," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "Some people come in and because they have never been in a Senate office before are a little shy. Don't be. It's your job."
Despite the lobbying, quota legislation is unlikely to pass Congress. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has warned that quotas and other remedies "will create retaliation and undercut our whole trading system." Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin expressed similar sentiment last week.
While some visiting steelworkers were new to the art of lobbying, others had lobbied before against ratifying international trade agreements that they believe would cost U.S. jobs.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, led a chant of "Steel helped to build America" in a House conference room where steelworkers congregated before their individual appointments with members and staff.
All visitors were given a lobbying package that included a map, phone numbers and office locations -- and for senators the year they are up for re-election.
"I think the more attention we can draw to the problem, the quicker a solution can come," said Chuck Rocha, a local union steward at a tire company in Tyler, Texas.