SKOWHEGAN — With presidential action expected soon, the majority of Maine’s congressional delegation came to the New Balance shoe factory in Skowhegan on Wednesday to promote legislation that would require athletic footwear for military personnel to be made in the United States.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King and Rep. Bruce Poliquin toured the plant and promoted their “Made-in-USA” footwear provision in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Obama is expected to sign.
Poliquin offered more fiery remarks than those of the senators, blasting the federal government for delaying such a provision.
The provision will require the Department of Defense to provide service members athletic shoes manufactured in the United States. That effectively requires the department to follow the Berry Amendment, which was passed in 1941 and requires the department to give preference to a number of domestically produced products to the greatest extent possible. The department already applies the Berry Amendment to combat boots and uniforms.
At the Skowhegan shoe factory Wednesday, Poliquin called out “shameful” action by the federal government in not acting sooner. He said New Balance, which employs 900 workers in Maine, could have made more money by making its shoes overseas, but chose not to, and he commended New Balance’s commitment to its workers in the state.
New Balance also has factories in Norridgewock and Norway.
“It’s about time our government invests in our workers,” Poliquin said.
Poliquin listed the battles he had with the Pentagon, special interests and bureaucrats to get to this point. He said he will meet with officials from the White House and Pentagon to make sure they know he is “watching like a hawk” to make sure the new law is implemented. He said the new administration in Washington understands “the importance of investing in our workers, and so do I.”
As the delegation toured the factory, one of the workers, Bobbie-Jo Price, said she is excited about the implications of the provision, because it “means the government wants to keep jobs in the United States.”
“It makes me proud to be able to build them,” said Price, who began working at the factory 25 years ago.
Collins, who said the defense department refused to apply the Berry Amendment to athletic footwear “for reasons unknown,” said now they could celebrate that the law is being followed.
The footwear provision is similar to the “Buy American Act” that King and Collins introduced in the Senate and the “Stepping Up For American Workers and Troops Act” Poliquin introduced in the House of Representatives earlier this year. Poliquin pushed for inclusion of the provision in legislation on the House floor. King, a member of Senate Armed Services Committee, pushed for its inclusion in the Senate version.
“We’ve worked for years to make sure the Department of Defense followed the law,” Collins said.
King called the provision “a long time coming” and said something like this “shouldn’t have taken so long.”
But he said that the delegation worked hard to ensure the provision happened, and that the number of shoes manufactured would be meaningful to Maine.
Brendan Melly, director of manufacturing at New Balance, estimated that the company could make up to an additional 250,000 shoes a year. He said the company could make more profits by making shoes in other countries, but it stayed in Maine to “do what’s right.”
“To have a clear-cut victory like this on behalf of the people of Maine is about as good as it gets,” King said.
Collins commended New Balance’s commitment to American jobs, saying many other athletic footwear makers outsourced.