October 25, 2012

Pending trade pact could cost Maine shoe worker jobs, forum told

Trans-Pacific Partnership, now in negotiations, would hurt state's New Balance factories, state representatives claim

By Doug Harlow dharlow@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

SKOWHEGAN -- It was called Trade Policy 101, a daylong panel discussion Wednesday on trade fundamentals and the impact of international trade agreements on Maine workers, primarily footwear employees at New Balance factories.

At stake, speakers said, are hundreds of jobs at three New Balance shoe company plants in Maine -- including one in Skowhegan and another in Norridgewock.

The pending Trans-Pacific Partnership being negotiated with 10 other nations could eliminate those jobs, state Rep. Sharon Treat, D-Hallowell, told the Citizen Trade Policy Commission.

The goal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership is 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, also could lift some tariffs, or import duties, on goods such as athletic footwear, making imported, foreign-made shoes cheaper to buy than those made in the U.S., hurting American workers.

Commissioners Wednesday -- a broad group from all over Maine -- said they were there to make sure those jobs stayed in Maine. The trade policy commission monitors the impact of international trade policy on the state. It is made up of legislators, businesses and labor representatives who make policy recommendations designed to protect Maine jobs.

"The goal of the U.S. government is to reduce tariffs down to nothing so there can be fair trade," Treat told the group during an evening public forum. "With the trans-Pacific trade agreement, countries such as Vietnam will say you want us to buy your corn? We say drop the tariffs."

Treat is a state advisor to the U.S. trade representative.

The tariffs are critical to the survival of Maine footwear jobs, state Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said. New Balance factories employ nearly 900 people in Maine. New Balance is the last company to make its sneakers in the United States and the last major footwear manufacturer to still make some of its product line in the U.S.

"This issue is huge for central Maine as far as the shoe tariff goes," McCabe said. "It's really clear that to keep these jobs here in central Maine, it's vital that some sort of tariffs stay in place."

Treat said the trade highway is a two-way street in which countries, including Vietnam and others, do not adhere to child labor laws, worker-safety regulations and wage- and hour-enforcement rules that are place in the United States. Recent studies, she said, show that labor cost in Vietnam is 35-40 percent cheaper than in China, where wages already are low.

If footwear is made in those countries it would be sold in America for much less than U.S.-made shoes, thus hurting jobs, Treat emphasized.

McCabe and Treat are both running for re-election this fall. McCabe for the House District 85 seat against Republican Donald L. Skillings of Skowhegan, and Treat for the House District 79 seat against Republican William Guerrette III of West Gardiner.

Skillings, who attended the full slate of discussion Wednesday, agreed with his opponent, saying tariffs have to stay in place or the local economy will face more job losses in the future. He said the bipartisan work done by the committee was encouraging.

"We need to focus first on protecting jobs in Maine," Skillings said. "The trans-Pacific trade agreement looks to favor automated manufacturing, more in the Midwest -- larger heavy manufacturing where you have automated procedures, with less labor. That's why those folks want it. We in Maine use skilled labor and raw materials and those jobs could be hurt by this agreement. That is a very dangerous thing for Maine."

Doug Harlow -- 612-2367
dharlow@centralmaine.com

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