Full Steam Ahead: USW Leads Coalition Seeking Action to Revitalize Shipbuilding

The following article was originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of USW@Work.


The USW led a coalition of five unions this March in filing a petition calling on the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to initiate an investigation of Chinese shipbuilding.

Over the past two decades, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has employed a number of predatory, non-market practices to massively expand its shipbuilding capacity and dominate global transportation and logistics networks. Those efforts decimated China’s competitors around the world, destroying thousands of good U.S. jobs in the process.

“The United States once had nearly 30 major shipyards; now we’re down to just a handful,” said USW International President David McCall. “That correlates with more than 70,000 lost shipbuilding jobs, not to mention all the secondary jobs the industry supports.”

Good USW Jobs

Many of those jobs are in industries where USW members work. One commercial ship can require approximately 13,000 tons of structural steel, 60,000 gallons of paint, 130 miles of electrical cable, as well as aluminum, glass and numerous other union-made products.

“If we do not act quickly, we will soon be dependent on China not only for the products their vessels bring into our ports but also for the ships themselves,” McCall said.

That dependence would have implications that go beyond the economic effects of lost jobs and shuttered facilities. Critical supply chains, as well as U.S. national security are at stake, McCall said.

“China has surpassed the United States and now operates the world’s largest navy,” he said. “Rebuilding our Merchant Marine is not only essential to increasing our nation’s sealift capability, it will help shore up the critical supply chains our military and commercial shipbuilding industries share, making us safer and more resilient.”

Potential Ripple Effects

Charles Spivey, president of Local 8888, observed the demise of the commercial shipbuilding industry firsthand. Spivey joined the Newport News, Va., shipyard in the late 1970s when it was still producing tankers for companies like El Paso Natural Gas Co. and U.S. Trust Co.

But that work ended when the U.S.T. Pacific, an ultra large crude carrier built for U.S. Trust, sailed out of the shipyard in 1979. Since then, except for a brief period in the 1990s when it produced commercial ships for overseas customers, the shipyard has focused exclusively on work for the U.S. military.

Today, about 12,000 Local 8888 members make aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines for the Navy. But Spivey said they would like to resume the commercial shipbuilding work and that they have the capacity for it.

James Crawford and his co-workers at Hunt Valve in Salem, Ohio, still make valves and actuators for commercial ships along with parts for military vessels, but they’ve seen demand for commercial ship components fall over the years.

Crawford, unit president for Local 3372-07, said the trade has the potential to create new, good-paying jobs while helping to boost the nation’s security.

“You can’t go somewhere to fight if you’re weak at home,” said Crawford part of the delegation of USW members who gathered at the U.S. Capitol in March to announce the filing of the case. “Nobody wants China to be taking our jobs. We need to be able to rely on American-made products.”

Revitalization of the shipbuilding industry would provide new opportunities for tens of thousands of USW members across numerous supply chains.

“It would help us tremendously,” said Steve Townsend, unit chair of USW Local 3261-01 at Rochester Metal Products in Rochester, Ind. “We can make just about anything having to do with iron castings. We’re very versatile,” said Townsend, citing hooks, brackets, water pumps and engine components as just a handful of the items he and other members of Local 3261-01 have the capacity to provide.

Chinese Dominance

Katherine Tai, who has served in the cabinet-level position of USTR since 2021, will review the petition and determine whether her office will launch an investigation of Chinese shipbuilding. She said she looked forward to that process, but that it was clear China has already harmed U.S. workers with its non-market policies, which include currency manipulation, dumping of low-priced goods, and unfair subsidization of Chinese industry.

“We have seen the PRC create dependencies and vulnerabilities in multiple sectors, like steel, aluminum, solar, batteries, and critical minerals,” Tai said.

As recently as the mid-1970s, U.S. shipbuilders employed more than 180,000 and launched 75 ships each year, according to the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM). Beginning with the Reagan administration, the government began to slash funding for shipbuilding, giving foreign competitors an edge and devastating the U.S. industry.

In 2023, McCall pointed out, China built more than 1,000 ships in 2023, while U.S. shipbuilders produced less than 10. Today, China controls about half of the world’s shipbuilding capacity, a level 232 times greater than that of the United States.

Union Coalition

Joining the USW in filing the petition were the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Maritime Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. The unions filed the petition under Section 301of the Trade Act of 1974, which provides the USTR with the authority to respond to unreasonable or discriminatory trade practices that burden or restrict U.S. commerce.

U.S. lawmakers also took up the cause, with U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Bob Casey sending a letter to President Joe Biden in support of the petition. Casey called China a “predatory regime.”

“We have to crack down hard on this regime and hold this regime and particularly President Xi Jinping accountable for what his regime does,” he said.

International Vice President Roxanne Brown said the Biden administration has already demonstrated its commitment to strengthening American manufacturing, creating good jobs and stopping unfair trade, and that rebuilding U.S. shipbuilding capacity is the next logical step.

“Labor unions and the Biden administration have worked together to establish a worker-centered trade policy and ramp up domestic manufacturing capacity through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS and Science Act,” said Brown. “Reviving our nation’s shipbuilding industry will enable us to expand those investments, ensure a steady supply of goods, and grow the middle class.”

Strong Support

The USW petition is asking the U.S. to force China to pay a fee each time a Chinese-built vessel enters a U.S. port. Those revenues would, in turn, be used to support American shipbuilders, creating jobs and revitalizing the industry.

American voters agree with the USW that shipbuilding must be a priority. A recent poll found 82 percent said they were concerned that the United States builds so few ships, and 74 percent supported government investments to rebuild the industry.

Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a non-profit partnership of unions and employers, said that allowing China to continue to dominate the shipbuilding industry would have “disastrous repercussions.”

“Strong measures in response to this petition are an essential first step to rebuilding America’s maritime independence, and it’s an urgent one,” Paul said. “The Biden administration must act now to level the playing field for our shipbuilders.”

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