SKOWHEGAN — A visit later this week to the New Balance shoe factory in Norridgewock by the U.S Trade Representative comes at a crucial time for the company’s 900 Maine jobs, state officials said Monday.

Reps. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, and Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said the message they heard Sunday at an international trade meeting in Leesburg, Va., was that protections for the footwear jobs are endangered.

A free-trade pact, called the Transpacific Partnership, is an 11-nation agreement under negotiation, in theory, to create jobs in the U.S. by increasing exports of industrial goods, agricultural products and textiles to parts of Asia and the Pacific Rim. The agreement, however, could lift some tariffs, or import duties, on goods including athletic footwear, making imported, foreign-made shoes cheaper to buy than those made in the United States and hurt American workers.

Treat and McCabe said they hope the visit by trade representative, Ambassador Ron Kirk, on Thursday will ease their concerns.

“Based on a statement we got back from (David Walker) the chief New Zealand negotiator, we came away quite concerned that, in fact, the agreement could be on track to phase out footwear tariffs,” Treat said Monday in a conference call with reporters. “I feel that it’s very important to be sitting down and meeting with the ambassador when he is Maine and to strongly advocate Maine jobs and U.S. jobs by maintaining these tariffs to really ensure fair trade.”

McCabe said his presentation to a global audience on Sunday was well attended and gave him a good audience to highlight the importance of New Balance jobs and the estimated 3,000 additional support jobs in materials and shipping across the country.

Meeting with Kirk, he said, will illustrate the shoe company’s commitment to the community as well. McCabe said he and Treat are concerned that there will be “an expiration” of the existing tariffs on footwear.

“His visit is actually vital for him to recognize how important these jobs are and how innovative New Balance is,” McCabe said during the conference call.

Treat, agreed, saying she and McCabe are the “squeaky wheel” that will get the grease of national attention about commodities continuing to be made in America.

“Raising our voices and pointing out the real implications here in the state of Maine could make a difference and certainly worth making the effort,” she said.

Negotiating members in the Transpacific agreement are the U.S., Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore and Brunei. Canada and Mexico also have been invited to join the negotiations.

“Overall, they are saying that this could create jobs,” Treat said, “but when you look down at the actual implications of it, sometimes the reality doesn’t match the rhetoric.”

Treat said she, McCabe and New Balance company officials, including President and CEO Rob DeMartini, want to meet with Kirk to show him the implications of removing import tariffs.

“Maine people are great advocates for themselves, and I think that he will, hopefully, listen,” Treat said.

New Balance employs about 900 people in Maine at three factories in Norridgewock, Oxford and Skowhegan.

McCabe and Treat also emphasized the importance of reinforcing the “Made in America” brand, including enforcing the Berry Amendment, which requires that the Defense Department buy certain products from American companies.

New Balance officials want to make sure the law applies to footwear. It already applies to food, clothing, fabrics, stainless steel and some tools.

Congress first established the domestic purchasing mandate in 1941, and for decades the military complied by issuing American-made uniforms, including athletic footwear, to American troops.

In recent years, however, the Defense Department has circumvented the policy by issuing cash allowances to soldiers to purchase their own training shoes.

Treat added that eliminating the tariffs on imported footwear, especially from countries such as Vietnam, where shoes are made by people earning low wages, also is about labor standards, environmental protection and public health in those countries.

“Tariffs are designed to compensate for the fact that you have manufacturing in a number of these other countries that is done with nothing like our minimum wage and with very different labor standards and sometimes coerced labor or child labor,” Treat said.


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