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North Dakota, Minnesota companies feel effects of tariffs

Steel sleeves, produced for automobile suspensions, are stacked on top of one another at Stripmatic Products. Photo by Angelo Merendino for The Washington Post

Steelmakers are happy. But what about everybody else?

President Donald Trump's new steel and aluminum tariffs, which went into effect on imports from allies at the beginning of the month, were aimed at reversing American metals producers' economic fortunes. But the move has left others scrambling, with steel prices rising at home and allies slapping their own tariffs on U.S. products around the world, leaving broad tracts of the market wondering what happens next.

"It's been pretty difficult lately, because things have been so up and down in D.C.," said Stacey Breuer, a spokesperson for Bobcat, the heavy equipment manufacturer that employs 3,000 workers in four North Dakota cities. New tariffs coincide with rising steel prices, which have crept upwards for months on market uncertainty, she said. But the tariffs also mean worries about foreign competitors' ability to buy cheaper steel elsewhere, send their goods to the U.S. and compete with Bobcat here at home. "We're really in a holding pattern until we understand the impacts of this," Breuer said.

Those concerns echo throughout the market, from companies as big as Bobcat to those as small as Wheatland Steel and Trim, a Tower City, N.D., company specializing in steel roofing and siding. Moses Wipf, a manager with Wheatland, said farmers might want to build themselves a new pole barn, but the increased price of steel—and a lull in corn and soybean prices—might put it out of reach.

"I'm going to go hunt you down and see if you've got a job for me," he joked to a reporter. "It's going to be tough."

The same goes for TrueNorth Steel, which has corporate offices in West Fargo. Company president Dan Kadrmas said he was at the White House not long ago to celebrate the benefits of the GOP tax overhaul, but these new tariffs have his company scrambling.

"The assumption we have is that we're expecting them to negotiate a deal here sometime in the near future," he said. "But if they don't, it'll have an impact for some of our manufactured product that we get from foreign sources, primarily that would be Canada."

Ripple effects

Simon Wilson is executive director of the North Dakota Trade Office. Like Breuer, he underscored how much uncertainty recent months' talk of tariffs has injected into the market. And now, with the U.S. actually trading economic punches with its allies, he said jobs are at stake. He shared the story of a central North Dakota business, which he declined to identify, that's heavily dependent on aluminum. The new tariffs could mean layoffs, he said.

"It (has) a local community effect," he said "People have less hours on the production line, they have less money to spend."

The new tariffs are 25 percent on steel and 10 percent on aluminum for several countries, including Canada, Mexico and those in the European Union. The result has been counterpunches from allies around the globe. Mexico levied $3 billion worth of tariffs last week on a wide range of goods. The European Union has announced plans to take similar action soon. Paul Connors, Canadian consul general in Minneapolis, said Canada will follow suit on July 1—but Trump can avoid it by rescinding his recent decision.

And that decision, Connors said, strikes many Canadians as "absurd." U.S. and Canadian steel markets are deeply intertwined, and the U.S. instituted the tariffs out of "national security" concerns—strange, he said, given Canadian presence alongside American soldiers throughout history, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

The new tariffs have launched a fierce round of lobbying as the business sector attempts to sway both congressional politicians and administration officials. Wilson said the state Trade Office is no exception, and Connors, in a separate statement, praised an upcoming Monday visit between North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Canadian Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has also voiced concern over growing trade tensions, recently meeting with the Mexican ambassador to the U.S. and leading state agriculture producers.

"We need smart trade policies to allow our farmers to reach new markets — not tariffs and hostility toward our top trading partners — and this meeting was a good opportunity for our partners in Mexico to hear that North Dakota farmers want to continue a strong trade partnership that keeps our rural communities strong," she said in a statement.

But some are pleased at the news. Officials with U.S. Steel, the nationwide metals producer with locations in Minnesota, said in a statement that they're pleased with Trump's new tariffs.

"This action will restore jobs and restart idled steelmaking facilities to support our country's long-term ability to produce steel," the statement read, "a critical component to our national and economic security."

Forum Communications Reporter John Hageman contributed to this report.

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108
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