NORRIDGEWOCK, Maine — Before she started touring the New Balance manufacturing plant on Wednesday, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine, held up a black New Balance sneaker, posed for a couple of pictures and couldn’t help but smile.
“I wear New Balance,” the senator said to a group of New Balance officials and reporters.
Snowe visited the factory in the wake of a June 10 letter she wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk expressing concern that a potential free trade agreement with low-wage footwear-producing nations in Asia could severely damage the domestic rubber footwear industry and the jobs it supports in Maine communities such as Norridgewock, Skowhegan and Norway.
Kirk is the Obama administration’s top trade adviser.
New Balance is the last major athletic shoe brand to manufacture footwear in the United States.
Snowe’s tour took her through a factory where employees’ job is “making shoes — from cutting up fabric to stitching them to putting them in a box,” said Matthew LeBretton, director of public affairs for New Balance.
The senator expressed concern in her letter to Kirk that the potential Asia-Pacific trade pact could give imports from footwear-producing countries with lower hourly wages, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, a strong competitive advantage, threatening production and employment in the United States.
In his reply to Snowe’s letter, Kirk assured her that the Obama administration will cautiously assess the impact of future trade agreements on rubber footwear trade, and consult intensively with American footwear manufacturers regarding the potential trade agreement.
“It’s a serious issue for a company like New Balance,” Snowe told reporters after the tour. “We’ve been addressing the situation, but hopefully we can work it through.”
She stressed the importance of jobs such as those at the factory in Norridgewock.
“These are precisely the kind of jobs that we need to be supporting as a government,” Snowe said. “The government cannot be undermining companies like New Balance [that] produce shoes here in America.”
LeBretton echoed Snowe’s comments.
“She knows how important these jobs are,” he said.
Other major shoe companies, such as Nike and Adidas, long ago shut down their U.S. factories and continued operations overseas. New Balance still has more than 1,000 employees working in the U.S.
Nike’s last remaining U.S. plant, in Saco, closed in the 1980s, and Snowe does not want to see that happen to New Balance.
“First and foremost, we have to do no harm to those jobs that exist here in America, and certainly the manufacturing jobs,” she said.
LeBretton added: “It’s not an easy fight, and we don’t ask for much other than to allow us to be competitive.”