WASHINGTON – For the second time in less than a year, the Obama administration’s top trade official will visit this week with factory workers in the small central Maine town of Norridgewock.
The topic: Maine’s (and the United States’) potentially fragile foothold in the athletic footwear business.
U.S. Trade Ambassador Michael Froman’s visit to New Balance’s Norridgewock factory — one of three New Balance facilities in Maine employing 900 people — comes at a critical juncture in U.S. negotiations with nearly a dozen nations on a new free-trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. Froman’s predecessor, Ron Kirk, visited the factory last September.
Froman’s trip to Maine also comes less than one week after workers’ rights groups and a major U.S. union raised concerns about labor conditions in Vietnam, the country at the heart of the concerns among New Balance employees.
At their core, free-trade deals are about eliminating “barriers” to exports and imports between nations, which often means phasing out U.S. tariffs on foreign imports.
The United States currently imposes a tariff — essentially an import tax — on footwear imported from Vietnam. Officials at Boston-based New Balance, as well as members of Maine’s congressional delegation, warn that eliminating those tariffs could endanger the few remaining sneaker factories in the United States.
Froman is slated to tour the factory Monday with 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Sen. Angus King before answering questions from workers. Last year, Kirk assured workers the administration was carefully considering impacts on U.S. athletic footwear manufacturers as it negotiates on the TPP. This year, King helped secure a pledge from Froman to visit Maine after placing a hold on his nomination to succeed Kirk.
One issue that may come up Monday — in addition to the wage differential between Maine and Vietnam — is working conditions in Vietnamese factories.
Last week, the organization Worker Rights Consortium and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters called on the Obama administration to suspend talks with Vietnam over concerns about labor conditions and worker rights. A report by the Worker Rights Consortium accused factory owners of forced labor, child labor, discrimination against female workers, unsafe working conditions, inadequate wages and of working with the Vietnamese government to squash attempts at forming independent unions.
Some of the most egregious violations — including imprisonment of labor organizers and deadly factory mishaps — took place at footwear factories, Worker Rights Consortium representatives said.
“The overall problems of rampant labor rights abuses extend across the industry sectors, including footwear,” the organization’s executive director, Scott Nova, said in a conference call with reporters.
VIEWS DIFFER ON NSA
Perhaps the biggest stir on Capitol Hill last week came when the House narrowly defeated an effort to strip the National Security Agency of its ability to collect massive amounts of data on phone calls as part of the agency’s anti-terrorism efforts.
Maine’s two House members voted to rein in the NSA, siding with an unusual coalition of tea party Republicans, libertarians and liberal Democrats. Their side lost 217-205.
“I voted against the last reauthorization of the Patriot Act because I thought it went too far, but even some of the people who voted for it never imagined it would be used for the kind of widespread surveillance that essentially circumvents the Fourth Amendment,” U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-District 1, said in a statement. “It is important for the government to have the ability to investigate and prevent terrorist attacks, but we also have to respect the constitution.”
Michaud, also a Democrat, released the following statement explaining his vote: “In light of the information disclosed about NSA surveillance programs, I believe we must limit the government’s authority to collect data on American phone calls. I strongly support allowing critical national security investigations to take place, but not at the expense of our privacy.”
That puts the pair somewhat at odds with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who — unlike Michaud and Pingree — serves on one of the two top-secret congressional Intelligence Committees that oversees surveillance activities. While Collins has said she believes more details of the programs should be shared publicly and with Congress, she says the program appears to have helped thwart dozens of terror plots.
Also this past week, the Senate Appropriations Committee on which Collins sits voted unanimously to order the State Department to work with Congress to set sanctions — or penalties — against any country that agrees to offer asylum to Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker.
King, an independent, has said he found it “unsettling” that the government was in possession of so much information but has also been critical of Snowden, saying he is leaning toward regarding his action as “treasonous” rather than as those of a whistleblower.
LGBT MEASURE ADVANCES
A Collins-backed measure to prohibit discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals during jury selection moved forward in the Senate this week.
Working with Democratic U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Collins succeeded in adding language to another appropriations bill that would prevent potential federal jurors from being eliminated during the selection process because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Finally, a little something for all of those numbers geeks out there.
The U.S. Census Bureau launched a new tool that allows users to look at demographic and economic statistics broken down by congressional district. The fact that Maine only has two districts makes for some easy but interesting comparisons.
For instance, most Mainers know that folks “from away” (as we non-Mainers are so lovingly called) tend to congregate in the southern part of the state. The Census Bureau’s new “My Congressional District” tool — available at www.census.gov/mycd — bears that out.
In 2011, 70.4 percent of residents in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District were born in Maine, compared to 58.4 percent in the more southerly 1st Congressional District.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: