U.S. Senate Candidate Angus King is urging U.S. Trade Ambassador Ron Kirk to halt talks on eliminating trade tariffs for athletic foot wear which would significantly impact a factory in Maine and add to the unemployment rate in this state and around the country. The letter was sent after King visited New Balance in Skowhegan last week.
Angus added, "There are 900 New Balance jobs on the line in Maine alone and several thousand more across the country. We cannot allow these tariffs to be discontinued and tie the hands of business and penalize the workers they employ. Too often our "Free Trade Agreements" are not "Fair Trade Agreements." We would never exempt a state from environmental, labor, and workplace regulations, so why should we exempt foreign countries, while allowing them to export their products to the U.S.? While I do not believe that every trade partner should be subject to our specific regulations, I do believe that they should have basic protections for their workers and reasonable environmental safeguards. This would create a more level playing field for our businesses to compete."
The Honorable Ron Kirk
United States Trade Representative
600 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20508
Dear Ambassador Kirk:
This week I toured the New Balance factory in the small town of Skowhegan, in central Maine. I talked to the people-nearly 400 of them-who work in the plant, in a county with an unemployment rate that has hovered around 10% since January. What I saw confirmed what I have long felt-that it is wrong to sacrifice the lives of these hard-working people on the altar of "free" trade. I use quotes around free because any trade arrangement which robs these people of their livelihoods and dignity is anything but free.
New Balance is the only domestic manufacturer of athletic shoes in the US, and the manufacturing facilities in Maine are critical to our local economy. The company employs more than 900 people in Maine at three different factories, and three thousand people across the country.
The management at New Balance discussed with me their concern that the current tariff on athletic footwear could be eliminated in the on-going negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. This step would have catastrophic consequences for New Balance and Maine.
I am urgently requesting, on behalf of these hard working men and women, that these negotiations be put on hold until our economy strengthens, and further, I believe that the idea of dropping this vital protection for American jobs should be put on hold indefinitely.
New Balance has to comply with the full panoply of federal and state regulation in order to do business here-OSHA, the Fair Labor Standards Act, The Clean Air Act, and many others-all designed to protect our workers and the environment. And yet, without tariff protections, they are expected to compete with factories in other parts of the world where such standards are minimal or non-existent.
As the experience of the past twenty years has demonstrated, neither they, nor others like them, can possibly compete under these circumstances and the inevitable and predictable result is a steady loss of American jobs.
The tariff on athletic footwear is designed to level this playing field-to at least give our manufacturers a chance to meet international competition through innovation, productivity, and hard work. I have long believed that free trade agreements must also be fair-and that countries with little or no labor or environmental protections should not be given free access to our markets.
When I was Governor of Maine, I attended the closing of the Hathaway Shirt factory in Waterville. I always felt that if I got to go to the celebrations-ribbon-cuttings and such-I should also go on the not-so-fun days as well. After reassuring the workers that we would provide training and transition support and that better opportunities were around the corner, I went down the line of the soon-to-be-jobless workers shaking hands. Most were downcast but reasonably cordial, until I got to one woman toward the end of the line. She refused my offered hand, looked me in the eye and said, "Why should I shake hands with someone who let them ship my job away?"
That moment put all the abstractions of free trade into stark perspective for me; I had no good answer for that woman then, I haven't figured one out since.
I was reminded of that incident this week, as I met the men and women who work hard every day to make shoes. They are not asking for a hand out. But they are looking to their government to provide them with fair access to a level playing field, where the quality of their work decides the fate of their company, not an advantage their competitor gains by avoiding the rules we take for granted as part of our national culture.
It is my intention to actively monitor this situation and be prepared, should I be fortunate enough to be elected to the US Senate in November, to do everything in my power to assure that our trade policy encourages job creation here at home and at least gives us the hope of fair competition.
I believe in trade and understand its benefits to Maine and the country as a whole; but I simply cannot convince myself that those benefits should come at the expense of so many good people. The whole world wants access to our market and this fact should enable us to drive a harder bargain in exchange for providing that access. I don't expect our trading partners to have all of our laws and regulations, but we should require some semblance of labor and environmental protections before opening our borders to unfettered free trade. I believe that in this fragile economy it is simply unacceptable to even contemplate-let alone actively negotiate-a step that would result in so many jobs being lost anywhere in the country.
I know you have a tough job where you must consider and weigh many competing interests-including those of consumers as well as producers-but in this case, the human costs seem far greater than the benefits, and I deeply hope that after considering all the evidence, you'll agree.