By Matt Wickenheiser
Shoemakers from Maine joined members of the state's congressional delegation Wednesday on Capitol Hill to argue against dropping tariffs through a proposed trade agreement, charging that eliminating existing tariffs would hurt American manufacturers.
Negotiations continue regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement that includes Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States.
According to a recent release from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Obama administration views the partnership as a way "to support jobs for American workers by boosting American exports to the dynamic Asia-Pacific region, promote manufacturing, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and at the same time, reflect in the agreement important values on key issues such as worker rights and the environment."
Workers from Boston-based New Balance's plant in Norridgewock, Maine, joined with Republican Sen. Susan Collins, Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and others to argue against dropping tariffs. According to the company, New Balance is the only athletic shoe firm that makes footwear in the United States. It has five factories in New England, including three in Maine in Norridgewock, Norway and Skowhegan, where they employ roughly 870 people.
"Trying to put faces to jobs is what we were trying to do," said Raye Wentworth, plant manager at the Norridgewock facility, who has worked for New Balance for 29 years and was in Washington, D.C., with a number of her fellow workers Wednesday. "I feel we were successful. I think we got to some really good representatives that heard our story. I felt supported, I felt like they understood.
"It's not just about the jobs, it's about the communities, how devastating it would be if we ever were to have to close our doors."
Michaud said he learned Wednesday during a meeting he set up between New Balance officials and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk that Kirk will be visiting one of the Maine factories this fall.
"I'm pleased that Ambassador Kirk accepted my invitation to tour a Maine New Balance facility," said Michaud. "It will be extremely valuable for him to see firsthand how important these jobs are to not only our workers but also to our state. I really appreciate him taking the time to come up to Maine. It's critical that we make sure this new trade agreement doesn't disadvantage our domestic manufacturers and threaten the thousands of jobs they support."
According to a release from Michaud's office, through free trade agreements, tariffs normally are phased out. If that happens, the release asserted, "Vietnam's currency manipulation, state-owned enterprises, and low labor and environmental standards will give its footwear factories a significant and unfair advantage over American producers like New Balance."
Michaud said Wednesday that even with tariffs in place, Vietnam's footwear sector has managed to grow to the second largest exporter of shoes to the U.S., second behind only China, according to a transcript of his remarks.
"These tariffs not only level the playing field, but they keep the doors to New Balance's factories open. They make it possible for all 4,000 American workers in the U.S. footwear sector to keep their jobs," he said. "In addition, and a point not to be overlooked during the conversations about reducing the deficit, these tariffs raised $19 billion in revenues over 10 years.
"I delivered this message directly to the President when I handed him a pair of personalized, hand-crafted New Balances made at their Norridgewock facility."
Collins noted that Maine has a long shoemaking history, once one of the largest industries in Maine with more than 30,000 workers. Today, she said, there's about 900 total shoemaking jobs in Maine.
"Domestic rubber footwear manufacturers depend on the long-standing duties that are levied on certain imported footwear products to continue to manufacture and produce high-quality, American made footwear," Collins said, according to a transcript of her remarks. "I am extremely concerned that a Trans-Pacific free trade agreement that does not recognize the importance of these duties to the domestic industry could put U.S. manufacturers at an overwhelming disadvantage compared to their competitors who have opted not to manufacture in the U.S., and as a result, could force the remaining domestic production overseas."
Raye said she told officials that Maine has seen factories closing down in recent decades to move overseas. The country is losing the craftsmanship it needs to succeed, she said.
New Balance in Maine is growing, she noted, having added 70 jobs at her facility in Norridgewock recently. Part of the reason for growth is increased efficiency, she said. It used to take eight days to make a pair of shoes, she said. Now it takes them three hours.
"We're not just lucky that we're here today and that we are staying competitive. It's because of our associates and their commitment to domestic manufacturing, to continue to make us better," she told the Bangor Daily News.
Collins referenced the recent controversy surrounding the sourcing of the U.S. Olympic uniforms, which were made in China.
"To all those people who care about the "Made in the U.S.A.' label, I would say this is your opportunity to support American workers and ensure the survival of a domestic footwear manufacturing industry," she said.
U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, didn't attend the conference but met with company officials later on Wednesday. She said in a release that New Balance has been a cornerstone of Maine and New England's manufacturing base.
"When other companies were relocating jobs overseas, New Balance hired more Americans to produce high quality, Made-in-the-USA lines," Snowe said. "Just as Maine's footwear manufacturing workers have redoubled their efforts to compete with an ever-increasing number of foreign imports, so too have I worked -- and will continue to work -- to defend these jobs from the type of across-the-board tariff reductions that could open the floodgates to subsidized imports."