WASHINGTON — Members of Congress joined workers from New Balance factories in Maine and Massachusetts on Wednesday to urge the Obama administration to preserve tariffs deemed 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.

However, New England’s shoe manufacturing sector is concerned that the U.S. could trade away tariffs that they say are key to allowing them to remain competitive with plants that operate in countries, such as 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. “We know Vietnam will be very successful in the footwear business. They don’t need to give away these tariffs … for Vietnam to succeed; but if they do give them away, it will put our business in significant peril.”

During a news conference in the Capitol building, DeMartini and other speakers tried to put the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement into the larger context of the political debate about outsourcing.

There were also several mentions of the latest controversy about U.S. Olympic team uniforms being made in China rather than domestically.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said those concerned about the Olympic uniforms could use this as an opportunity “to support American workers and ensure the survival of a domestic footwear manufacturing industry.

“We must not pursue policies that will undercut these companies and their talented workers and force still more manufacturing operations to relocate overseas,” Collins said.

Free-trade agreements, which are subject to approval by Congress, are both sought-after by business groups that see them as opening up additional markets but also controversial among some businesses that fear effects on their domestic manufacturing.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-2nd District, said that even with the tariffs, Vietnam’s footwear sector still has been able to grow 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 was sporting a pair of New Balance sneakers with his suit.

New Balance, like most manufacturers, does produce some of its sneakers in overseas factories. But DeMartini said the company 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 Norridgewock facility, said years ago it took eightdays to produce a pair of sneakers. Today, they can be made in a few hours, she said.

“Our associates are dedicated, hardworking people and they have a craft,” Wentworth said after the news conference. “We stay competitive through our associates being innovative and through continual improvements.”

Sherry Piirainen, a worker at New Balance’s Norway plant, said the factory is one of the few employers that offer a comprehensive set of benefits, including health insurance and educational opportunities. Should the factory have to shut down, Piirainen said, it will affect Norway and surrounding communities dramatically.

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