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U.S. union confident of win on China tire spat at WTO

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. union group said on Wednesday it was confident President Barack Obama's decision to slap duties on Chinese tires would be upheld when a still-secret World Trade Organization panel ruling is made public in the coming months.

"We've had the opportunity to review the submissions. We are confident the Obama administration put forth a strong defense," Gary Hubbard, a spokeswoman for the United Steelworkers union, told Reuters.

Obama angered China last year by slapping a 35-percent duty on its tire exports to the United States at the behest of the steelworkers, who complained that a market-disrupting surge in tire imports from China threatened jobs at several U.S. tire plants where their members work.

The decision was criticized by many as an example of U.S. protectionism. But U.S. officials said it was legal under a provision of China's WTO accession agreement which allows such import safeguard actions through December 2013.

China challenged the U.S. action at the WTO and a dispute-settlement panel issued its preliminary confidential ruling to both sides in late September.

The news publication BNA, which closely tracks WTO proceedings in Geneva, reported this week that the preliminary ruling largely upheld Obama's action.

U.S. trade officials said on Wednesday they were bound by WTO rules from commenting on the decision.

"This is a confidential report and we cannot discuss its contents," said Nefeterius McPherson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.

The final report will be released to both parties in early November. It won't be made public until it has been translated into all the official languages of the WTO, McPherson said.

The U.S. duty on Chinese tires fell to 30 percent at the end of September and will decline to 25 percent in the third and final year of Obama's import relief action.

(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Philip Barbara)

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