September 4, 2011

Jonathan Riskind: Let's put our foot down on U.S.-made athletic shoes

A contrasting combination of pride and anxiety showed in the faces of workers last month when U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe toured the New Balance shoe factory in Norridgewock.

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U.S. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, center, tours the New Balance factory in Norridgewock. Maine’s congressional delegation is trying to promote military use of American-made shoes.

Kennebec Journal file photo

The 800 Mainers who work at New Balance's plants in Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Norway are proud still to be producing American-made athletic shoes. But they worry that New Balance isn't immune to the economic and free trade pressures and incentives that have caused so many other athletic-shoe manufacturing jobs to leave the U.S.

Even Boston-based New Balance, which prominently stamps "Made in USA" on the shoes produced in Maine and two factories in Massachusetts, makes 75 percent of its shoes abroad, in places like China and Vietnam.

Some issues that Maine lawmakers such as the Republican Snowe and Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, who visited New Balance's Skowhegan factory in August, hear about when they visit New Balance plants are complex and don't have easy answers.

A pending free trade agreement with Vietnam and other Asia-Pacific countries could boost exports of an array of U.S. goods and services, and make it easier for athletic shoes made by low-wage workers to be sold tariff-free. That would add a layer of difficulty to New Balance's effort to keep operating plants in Maine and Massachusetts.

One problem facing New Balance would seem relatively simple to address: the U.S. Department of Defense's decision to exclude athletic shoes from a World War II-era law, known as the Berry Amendment, mandating that American soldiers be outfitted with clothes and other gear made in America.

Instead, recruits are given cash allowances to buy athletic shoes for training and exercise, except Marines, who have to buy their own because shoes are considered "personal items."

The Defense Department's rationale for the cash allowances is that recruits should have the freedom to choose shoes that best suit the "uniqueness of their individual physiology, running style, and individual comfort and fit requirements."

That was part of a Defense Department report issued earlier this year in response to lawmakers such as Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who worked with committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., to put language in the 2011 defense authorization bill demanding that the department explain the footwear policy.

The report, of course, drove lawmakers from New England nuts.

The job creation debate goes on, but here's a case where the U.S. military appears to be looking for reasons not to buy products made by Americans who are at risk of losing their jobs.

Another problem: the Berry Amendment essentially mandates that every component in a product be made domestically, not just the overall product. The exception is when particular components just aren't available domestically, such as the mid-soles for athletic shoes.

New Balance produced 5,000 pairs of Berry Amendment-compliant athletic shoes, which are in a warehouse because the military refused to budge from its stance of just giving soldiers cash allowances for sneakers. New Balance still hopes to sell them to military exchanges where soldiers can buy them if they choose.

Collins and Snowe are following up in the pending 2012 defense bill with another bid to get the military to reverse its stance: a provision requiring the Pentagon to do a market survey of how many U.S. companies would be able to produce athletic shoes to meet the military's needs.

Michaud says he will introduce legislation this month to require the Pentagon to buy American-made athletic shoes.

New Balance says it's not looking for a guaranteed contract with the military, and will help find other American shoe manufacturers that would be willing to retool if the Defense department put out a request for bids to buy American-made athletic shoes.

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