Obama Trade Ambassador Visits New Balance Amidst Crucial Trade Talks
Members of the Obama administration are in the middle of negotiating a new foreign trade agreement that could have a devastating impact on the U.S. shoe manufacturing industry. Monday in Norridgewock, the man on the front lines of those negotiations came face-to-face with the workers at New Balance who stand to lose their jobs depending on the outcome of the agreement. Michael Froman toured the facility, then met with workers and answered their questions along with Senator Angus King and Congressman Mike Michaud.The major issue with the Trans-Pacific Partnership is the tariff paid by countries like Vietnam that export shoes to the U.S. That fee keeps American companies like New Balance competitive with countries that have much more lax workplace regulations. If the tariff is reduced or eliminated, allowing foreign manufacturers to undercut companies like New Balance, it could cause the U.S. to become flooded with cheaper Vietnamese manufactured shoes which would be catastrophic to American shoe manufacturers.”We respectfully ask Ambassador Froman and his team to recognize that making things in America is not easy. If it were there would be more of us than just us doing it,” New Balance CEO Rob DeMartini said Monday.Senator Angus King invited Froman to Norridgewock to see the workers in action before continuing his negotiations. King said this isn’t an issue about free trade but rather fair trade.”I don’t think that our companies should have to compete with companies around the world that don’t follow the same rules that you have to follow here. whether their labor rules, hours rules, environmental rules,” King said.The workers’ message for the Obama administration was delivered by their CEO.”We’re asking the administration to do everything they can to focus on jobs in America not jobs in Asia,” DeMartini said, receiving applause from his employees. Senator King described the negotiations as being “on the 15 yard line. We’re just waiting for him (Froman) to get us over the goal line.” But Froman couched that enthusiasm saying it’s too early to say where the negotiations are heading.”We’re going to work to make sure, the best we can, that we’re supporting domestic manufacturing, both in terms of leveling the playing field and raising standards around the world opening markets and addressing the tariff issues.” Some workers at New Balance, like Oscar Brann who has been on the job for 13 years, say they’re concerned they could lose their jobs.”Very concerned,” Brann said. “Look at Detroit. Look at other cities in the United States. It’s not so much about New Balance, it’s about the American worker. Look at the devastation all around the different cities. One of these factories close up, it’s a whole town.”The next rounds of negotiations are scheduled for late August. A decision is expected by the end of this year.