U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told workers in Norridgewock that he was committed to saving American manufacturing jobs — but that might not mean their jobs.

The ebullient ambassador said the United States would be in “no rush” to do away with a tariff on imported footwear in the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership now under negotiation. That tariff keeps New Balance shoes competitively priced in the domestic marketplace.

Kirk’s statement, however, is another way of saying that the tariff would go away someday, and companies such as New Balance eventually would need to adapt to the competition or die.

This is hard-to-accept information for communities such as Skowhegan, which would need to replace 900 good-paying jobs if the plant was killed by cheap imports. The impact would not just be on those 900 people, but also on their families and all the other businesses that benefit from the economic activity generated by people who cash New Balance paychecks.

The threat of losing New Balance, the last major shoemaker making part of its product line in the United States, lends itself to the same arguments that supporters of the U.S. auto industry made, when the Obama administration decided to step in and prevent General Motors and Chrysler from going under.

At the recent Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker extolled the auto bailout, not because it would produce lower-priced cars and trucks. People talked about workers’ self-worth, their ability to support strong families and the community benefits that flow from having a functioning auto industry. Those are things you can’t import at any price.

Kirk, however, reeled off numbers to the workers in Norridgewock that make protectionism look like a losing strategy.

He said 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States, and the American economy would grow more by serving that market. Even New Balance, Kirk said, does 40 percent of its business overseas, where it does not benefit from restrictive tariffs.

Collectively, the nation benefits more from growth in manufacturing and exports than it would from clinging to jobs in ever-less-competitive industries.

That does not mean abandoning communities such as Norridgewock, Oxford and Skowhegan, which is why Kirk’s visit was well-received. Through negotiations, the tariff could be phased out over a long period, giving the company time to change its business strategy and preserve the jobs.

In a meeting with the MaineToday Media editorial board, Kirk was critical of NAFTA, the first free-trade deal, because it did not do enough to ensure that partner countries had labor and environmental standards that would keep competition fair. Better enforcement of agreements will make sure of that. And he said the agreements should protect American companies from competing with state-owned operations on other countries.

Politicians from both parties are pushing Kirk to save the tariff, but modernizing American industry and opening markets to our exports may be the only way to save those jobs.

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