How a tiny aluminum maker won protection

This U.S. plant operated by Century Aluminum on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River is a relative success story in an industry still reeling from global competition, thanks to a move by the Trump administration which slapped a 10 percent tariff on all foreign aluminum, after intense lobbying in Washington by the company in favor of tariffs to penalize cheaper imports.

Now Century Aluminum is ready to expand and has brought back laid off workers like Andy Mattingly.


"When I got laid off in 2015 my brother and I had to go 10 hours away from home to work construction to be able to make the kind of money we were making here. So when we got a call to come back- in meant quite a bit."

But how did a small company with a workforce that shrank to less than 300 workers and operated at less than half its production capacity before the tariffs have such an outsized influence on the White House? Century was able to find a sympathetic ear not only from President Trump, but also Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who before his stint at the White House made billions buying distressed steel companies, says Reuters manufacturing correspondent Tim Aeppel.


"They were able to make the case to these members of the administration who are so convinced that we need to restore sort of old, conventional industries as part of our industrial base. It's the same with the coal industry. It's part of the country where this administration feels they made a promise to restore industries and this was a very visible example that they could use."

The United States was once the world's biggest producer of primary aluminum but has since seen its power shrink dramatically. There are now only five operating primary aluminum smelters left here, down from 23 in 2001. But Century's tariff win comes as a cost to its customers - metal users like the auto industry, which hires far more U.S. workers and is economically more vital to the U.S. economy.

General Motors says the higher aluminum tariffs will cost it $1 billion a year, while heavy-duty equipment maker Deere laid off workers, partly blaming the higher tariffs. Meanwhile, Century is planning to just about double its workforce to more than 600 workers, compared to the approximately 173,000 strong at GM alone.