Ten years ago, Ansonia Copper and Brass started getting undersold by mills in India, China and Mexico in supplying rods and flat wire to home construction, aerospace and the auto industry.
At the time, the company had about 200 employees in Ansonia and Waterbury, but in 2007, it closed the rod and wire mill, and laid off the majority of its workers.
The only part of the business that was left was copper-nickel tubing, which is used on military ships and submarines.
While laws require that 51 percent of military equipment be American content, the company, renamed Ansonia Specialty Metals, is again being undercut by foreign competition.
In late April, Ansonia laid off about 15 employees, leaving just 40 in the mill. These workers, like those the company laid off six years ago, recently qualified for federal benefits that pay for retraining and up to two years of unemployment checks, because they lost their jobs to foreign competition. The program is called Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA.
Ansonia Specialty Metals President John Barto said Bath Iron Works in Maine and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi have been buying copper-nickel tubing from Nacobre Industries, a large corporation in Mexico City.
Because he lost that business, he had to lay off the men.
“I know that both [U.S.] senators have made it a point to provide their leadership to do everything within their power to preserve the capability and preserve the jobs,” Barto said. “We are the last American supplier.”
Since his days as a congressman, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Ct., has held up Ansonia as an example of why stronger Buy America laws are needed at the Pentagon.
“Ansonia Specialty Metals continues to be a poster child for the Buy America clause,” Murphy said Thursday from Washington. “The reason Ansonia needs TAA assistance is because they’ve lost defense contracts to foreign companies.”
Barto said, “I’m not sitting here whining because here, these other countries are making product just as good as mine for less money.” He said he believes the Mexican mill is dumping the product at below its production cost, and if it drives him out of business, it will raise its prices.
He said after he shut the rod mill, many of his old customers begged him to start it back up, telling him their new suppliers had raised their prices and the quality wasn’t as good. But it was too late. He’d sold off the equipment.
Murphy warns defense officials that if Ansonia goes under, the United States will not be able to get the capability back.
“I’m fighting the battle on two fronts. I speak directly to shipbuilders to try to pressure them to keep their business in the United States,” Murphy said, “and I continue to press my case legislatively. I have not won as many battles as I would’ve liked on this front the last several years, but I’m not giving up.”
Barto said many of his workers, who make an average of $17 an hour, have been with the company for decades. He said some of the men who lost their jobs in 2007 went to work for other manufacturers, some retrained, and some still aren’t working.
“We’re doing other things to try and diversify. We don’t want to have all our eggs in that basket,” Barto said, mentioning the oil and gas industry. With Ansonia nearly completely dependent on naval spending, he added, “you can see what happens.”