WASHINGTON -- Officials and workers from New Balance, some clad in sneakers, strode through the marbled halls of Congress on Wednesday to lobby Congress to keep tariffs in place on foreign-made shoes, and received vows of help from members of the Massachusetts and Maine congressional delegations.
Lifting tariffs on athletic shoes made in China and Vietnam could endanger the livelihoods of 4,000 employees of Boston-based New Balance, according to company officials who convened a news conference in the Capitol on Wednesday.
“We don’t want to be protected. We want to compete on a level playing field, and we know that Vietnam will be very successful in the footwear business,” said Robert DeMartini, the company’s president and chief executive officer. Lifting the tariffs, he said, would “put our business in significant peril.”
The Obama administration is currently negotiating a Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement with eight Pacific rim countries, including China and Vietnam, the two largest exporters of athletic shoes to the United States.
Much of the negotiations over the free trade agreement has been shrouded in secrecy, prompting some in Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, to demand greater access into negotiations. Last month, four Democratic senators sent a letter to Ron Kirk, the U.S. trade representative, to lobby for more transparency.
“The negotiations USTR is pursuing will create binding policies on future Congresses in numerous areas where there is significant public interest, including policies related to labor, environment and natural resources, land use, food, agriculture and product standards, intellectual property rights, state-owned enterprises and government procurement policies, as well as financial, health-care, energy, telecommunications and other service sector regulations,” the letter said.
“In an effort to ensure full public disclosure and consultation, we request that the USTR provide the public with detailed information and consistent updates on what USTR is seeking in the TPP on these matters of broad public interest.”
At least 13 meetings have been held, and another is scheduled for September in Leesburg, Va.
US companies, including New Balance, are particularly concerned about any agreements that could diminish their ability to compete with foreign-made goods.
New Balance officials say the company is the only remaining US athletic shoe company that still manufactures most of its products in this country.
“New Balance ownership had made a decision to keep its manufacturing here in the United States despite the pressures to do otherwise,” said Representative Niki Tsongas, whose district includes the company’s largest shoe factory in Lawrence, with 685 employees.
In addition to Tsongas, Republican Senators Scott Brown, of Massachusetts, and Susan Collins, of Maine, and Democratic Representives Richard Neal of Massachusetts and Michael Michaud of Maine vowed support for New Balance.
“I do think we have to maintain that tariff,” Tsongas said. “I don’t think it harms in any way the American consumer but it does protect this company that is so committed to our country and to its workers,” she said.