August 24, 2011

New Balance workers urge military to buy American

Rep. Michaud agrees while touring shop

SKOWHEGAN -- Sarah Clark-Therrien of Winslow knows one way her employer, New Balance, can create more jobs and preserve manufacturing in Maine: sell thousands more shoes to the military.

click image to enlarge

MEET THE PEOPLE: U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-2nd District, right talks with Cindy Baiko, of Skowhegan, on Tuesday at the New Balance athletic shoe factory in Skowhegan as part of a tour of manufacturing facilities across Maine. Baiko, who has worked at New Balance 16 years, said, "We need to stay here."

Staff photo by Erin Rhoda

As Clark-Therrien sewed pieces of sneakers' heels on Tuesday for the last major U.S. athletic shoe manufacturer that still produces footwear in the United States, she talked about a federal law called the Berry Amendment.

The law requires the military to purchase certain items, including clothing, that are produced on American soil. But what if it also required the U.S. Department of Defense to buy American-made shoes?

"That would create more jobs," Clark-Therrien said while stacking finished heel pieces. "It would be a big account for us to have the military."

U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-2nd District, agrees. On the congressman's visit to the New Balance factory in Skowhegan on Tuesday he announced he will soon introduce a bill to require the Department of Defense to buy American-made athletic footwear for servicemen and women.

"The Berry Amendment and making sure the Department of Defense complies with the law is going to be key to folks here at New Balance," Michaud said after his tour of the factory. "Soldiers should be wearing American-made footwear."

Policymakers, some of whom believe the Berry Amendment contradicts free trade policies, have debated the requirement that the military purchase American products, according to a congressional report by Valerie Bailey Grasso, a specialist in defense acquisition. Those opposed to the law say competition is the best way to improve product quality.

Those in favor of it, however, say domestic businesses need the protection provided by the requirement.

For the last major manufacturer of its kind in the U.S., clarifying the law to include footwear could ensure New Balance's survival at a time when the company is already trying to compete with the onslaught of inexpensive sneakers made abroad.

The company is the second-largest employer in Somerset County, with more than 600 workers in Skowhegan and Norridgewock. It has 800 employees in Maine and 1,000 in total. It provides about $158,500 in real estate and property taxes to both Skowhegan and Norridgewock, according to town records. The New Balance Foundation provides thousands of dollars in grant money to projects across Somerset County.

The local economy is on the line, said Skowhegan Town Manager John Doucette Jr., who also toured the factory.

"Eight hundred jobs. It's scary," he said. "Eight hundred jobs filters down."

The Berry Amendment already requires that the military buy food, clothing, fabrics, specialty metal and stainless steel that is produced in the U.S. While the law does not specifically mention shoes, footwear should fall under the category of clothing, Michaud said.

Instead, the military allows soldiers to buy shoes with their cash allowance.

Michaud also intends to write a letter to President Barack Obama to urge him to direct the secretary of defense to buy American footwear.

"I want to hold the president to his commitment" to preserve manufacturing jobs, Michaud said.

Michaud is already a co-sponsor of the Berry Amendment Extension Act, which would apply the law to another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

If American soldiers already wear uniforms, underwear, socks and hats sewn together in the U.S. with U.S.-made cloth and thread, then their shoes should be made in the U.S. as well, said Matthew LeBretton, director of public affairs for New Balance.

"There's a real opportunity here to not only protect us but expand domestic manufacturing jobs at a time when they're critically needed," LeBretton said.

"For us, it ensures we have a future, and the business keeps growing," Patrick Welch, plant manager, said.

(Continued on page 2)

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