NORRIDGEWOCK — U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk promised workers at the New Balance shoe factory Thursday morning that he was not going to rush into changes on footwear import tariffs.

Kirk was invited to the factory by U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-2nd District. The visit was part of his commitment to preserving American jobs, while examining import duties to find a fair balance, Kirk said. Visiting the plant and seeing the workers in action was part of that strategy, he said.

“America is not afraid of a fight and not afraid of competition,” he said. “We want to make manufacturing sexy again in America.”

New Balance employs about 900 Maine workers at factories in Norridgewock, Oxford and Skowhegan. It is the last major footwear manufacturer to still make some of its product line in the United States.

Earlier this week, 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 with the idea of creating jobs in the U.S. by increasing exports of industrial goods, agricultural products and textiles to parts of Asia and the Pacific Rim. However, the agreement also 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.

Kirk, a former mayor of Dallas, told more than 380 New Balance workers assembled in the plant’s cafeteria that the Transpacific Partnership is a two-way street. If the pact is approved, a wide range of American-made goods would have new markets, he said.

Kirk said a tariff amounts to a direct tax on the consumer. He said the goal of his office is to have trade policies that are fair and balanced, while also protecting the U.S. manufacturing base.

“The reality is 95 percent of the world’s consumers live somewhere other than America,” Kirk said. “One of the ways we’re going to create the jobs Americans are looking for is: ‘Now we want to sell them our stuff.’

“We want kids in China, Hanoi and Brazil and Africa wearing New Balance and driving Chevys and eating food made in America. That’s the balance we’re trying to strike.”

Led on a tour of the Norridgewock facility by plant manager Raye Wentworth and New Balance President and CEO Rob DeMartini, Kirk visited work stations where some of 4,200 pairs of athletic shoes in nine different styles are made every day. Michaud also joined the tour, as did representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

One section had a small sign welcoming Kirk. At her work station, New Balance employee Jill Johnson had pictures of her two little girls, illustrating the importance of keeping jobs for Maine families.

From her work station on the factory floor, Melanie Knight, of New Sharon, a mother of two, said she makes $14 an hour and wants to keep her job. She said Kirk’s visit and the throng of Maine media following him Thursday was a positive sign.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said. “I hope we keep our jobs.”

DeMartini said during the tour that he felt Kirk’s visit to Maine was encouraging.

“I think it’s very important,” DeMartini said. “It puts faces on the jobs and the community. We’ve been talking with him for a year and a half.”

DeMartini said later that because of innovation and working smarter, what used to take New Balance factory workers 14 days to make a shoe, and more recently eight days, today takes only two hours. He said he wants to keep the tariffs in place to protect American jobs.

“We reinvest in our communities where we do business to make sure not only the jobs are good, and that the pay is good, but the communities are healthy and we’re giving back,” he said. “Your products are globally sought after. We export 600,000 pairs of American-made shoes, and we will triple that over the next couple of years.”

Later, in a meeting with the editorial board of the Morning Sentinel, Kennebec Journal and The Portland Press Herald, Kirk said trade agreements often include provisions with greater protection for what he called “sensitive products.”

Tariffs — such as the one on foreign-made shoes — might be phased out over a longer period than others, he said; or the trade agreements can continue protections for a set time while an industry adapts to a free-trade environment.

Kirk said recent trade agreements have sought to create conditions for truly fair competition by including rules on working conditions, wages, environmental regulations and even provisions to deal with operation of government-controlled enterprises.

Also, he said, the Obama administration has put greater emphasis on enforcing provisions of existing trade agreements to make sure foreign companies play by the rules.

Kirk said he thinks the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement could be completed next year, but he cautioned that a lot of hard issues remain to be negotiated. The 14th round of negotiations are just wrapping up in Virginia, he said.

He said he thinks workers such as those at New Balance should realize that their concerns are being heard.

“What they want to know is we are listening,” he said, “and we are working to strike the proper balance. If we do our jobs right and strike the right balance, we can do it in a way that hopefully keeps what New Balance is doing.”

Portland Press Herald reporter Ed Murphy contributed to this story.

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