AUGUSTA, Maine — Two Maine legislators will appeal to international trade negotiators in Virginia this weekend to work out a free trade agreement that allows the athletic footwear manufacturer New Balance to keep about 900 shoe manufacturing jobs in Maine.
Democratic Reps. Sharon Treat and Jeff McCabe will address negotiators at the latest round of talks concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which starts Thursday in Leesburg, Va., and continues for 10 days.
Negotiators are meeting for their 14th round of talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact in the works that includes the United States and eight other countries, including footwear-exporting Vietnam. As part of the trade agreement, Vietnamese negotiators have pressed the United States to remove a tariff on athletic footwear that New Balance says makes it financially viable to maintain manufacturing operations in the United States.
New Balance is the last major athletic footwear company to maintain U.S. manufacturing operations. The company runs factories in Norridgewock, Norway and Skowhegan and two more in Massachusetts.
“I think it’s really important to do what we can to keep any job here in Maine,” said McCabe, who represents Skowhegan. “New Balance is definitely vital to our local economy and a fixture in our community.”
McCabe said he plans to use his 10-minute presentation to negotiators Sunday to discuss Skowhegan and New Balance’s impact on the Somerset County community.
“I want to really put that personal face on and really talk to them about the people who work at New Balance and the impact that each of those jobs has on the community,” he said.
McCabe and Treat — who are among 61 people delivering presentations as part of Sunday’s Direct Stakeholder Engagement event at the trade talks — will also staff a table where they hope to speak one-on-one with trade negotiators and play a video about Skowhegan and New Balance.
“We want to make sure that any trade agreement is a fair trade agreement, not just a free trade agreement,” said Treat, who represents Hallowell, Farmingdale and West Gardiner. “Otherwise, we’re going to see even more jobs leaving this country and going overseas.”
In addition to footwear duties and other topics, Treat said she’ll appeal to negotiators to work out a pact that doesn’t override governments’ authority to establish policies that require that they buy U.S.-made products. An example is the federal Berry Amendment, which requires the Department of Defense to buy American goods for military personnel when possible.
Treat has been involved with Trans-Pacific Partnership talks as a “cleared” adviser to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, meaning she has the security clearance needed to review and offer input on draft trade agreement language that isn’t made available to the public. She has also represented Maine’s Citizen Trade Policy Commission at previous rounds of Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.
Maine law requires that the commission review trade agreements and assess their impact on the state. State law also requires that the state Legislature sign off on a trade agreement before its provisions take effect in Maine.
The footwear duties that benefit New Balance have become an issue on the campaign trail in the race to replace Olympia Snowe in the U.S. Senate. Independent former Gov. Angus King said last month that Trans-Pacific Partnership talks should be put on hold and that the footwear tariffs shouldn’t be eliminated.
King’s Democratic and Republican rivals in the race, Cynthia Dill and Charlie Summers, said they, too, support keeping the tariffs in place.
Dill, a state senator from Cape Elizabeth, said it’s “vital that we do all we can to protect the workers in our Skowhegan and Norridgewock factories from unfair trade practices abroad.” Summers, Maine’s secretary of state, said a trade agreement that eliminates the tariffs “could have dire consequences for Mainers and the manufacturing industry here.”
Independents Steve Woods and Andrew Ian Dodge said they supported eliminating the tariffs.
Awareness about New Balance has also made it Capitol Hill. U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and Sen. Susan Collins in July hosted a press conference with New Balance officials in Washington, D.C., where they argued against dropping tariffs through the proposed trade agreement. Michaud has also invited Kirk, the U.S. trade representative, to visit one of Maine’s New Balance factories this fall.
Kirk has accepted the invitation, according to Michaud’s office.