By Kevin Miller
Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON - Members of Congress joined workers from New Balance factories in Maine and Massachusetts on Wednesday to urge the Obama administration to preserve tariffs they see as critical to the few athletic shoe manufacturers left in the U.S.
Administration officials are in early negotiations on a potential free trade agreement with Pacific nations stretching from Australia to Peru.
New England's shoe manufacturing sector is concerned that the U.S. could trade away tariffs that it says are key to allowing it to remain competitive with plants that operate in countries, like Vietnam, that have lower labor costs and environmental standards.
"We don't want to be protected. We want to compete on a level playing field," said Rob DeMartini, president and CEO of New Balance Athletic Shoe, which employs nearly 900 people at three plants in Maine.
During a news conference in the Capitol, DeMartini and other speakers tried to put the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement into the larger context of the political debate over outsourcing.
There were several mentions of the latest controversy, over the U.S. Olympic team uniforms being made in China.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said those who are concerned about the Olympic uniforms could use it as an opportunity "to support American workers and ensure the survival of a domestic footwear manufacturing industry."
Free trade agreements, which need approval from Congress, are sought after by business groups that perceive them as opening up additional markets but are controversial among businesses that fear impacts on their domestic manufacturing.
U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine said that even with the tariffs, Vietnam's footwear sector has grown to the second-largest exporter to the U.S., after China.
"These tariffs not only level the playing field but they keep the doors open for New Balance factories and they make it possible for over 4,000 American workers in the footwear sector to keep their jobs," said Michaud, who wore a pair of New Balance sneakers with his suit.
New Balance, like most manufacturers, produces some of its sneakers overseas. But DeMartini said it has made an effort to keep factories in the U.S. -- despite the higher labor costs -- by streamlining operations.
Raye Wentworth, plant manager at the company's facility in Norridgewock, said years ago it took eight days to produce a pair of sneakers. Today, they can be made in hours, she said.
"Our associates are dedicated, hard-working people and they have a craft," Wentworth said after the press conference. "We stay competitive through our associates being innovative and through continual improvements."
Sherry Piirainen, a worker at New Balance's plant in Norway, said the factory is one of the only employers that offers comprehensive benefits, including health insurance and educational opportunities. Should the factory shut down, Piirainen said, it will dramatically affect Norway and surrounding communities.
Collins and Michaud were joined by Sen. Scott Brown, Rep. Richard Neal and Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts.
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at email@example.com
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDCTweet