So employees try working each shift to make it up. Conversations on the shop floor are sparse at best, and the tasks at each work station have been stripped of waste and precisely timed. Workers cut leather for a pair of shoes in 88 seconds, handle precise stitching in 37 seconds and glue soles to uppers even faster.
“The company already could make more money by going overseas, and they know it,” said Scott Boulette, 35, a burly team leader who has his son’s name tattooed in Gothic letters down his left forearm. “So we hustle.”
Now, however, comes what may be an insurmountable challenge. The Obama administration is negotiating a free-trade agreement with Vietnam and seven other countries, and it is unclear whether the plant can stand up to a flood of shoes from that country, already one of the leading exporters of footwear to the United States.
“We are deeply concerned by the inclusion of Vietnam in a potential free-trade agreement,” said Rob DeMartini, president and chief executive of New Balance.
The workers’ predicament highlights the difficulty facing the Obama administration as it seeks free-trade agreements as a potential remedy for U.S. unemployment, now at 9.2 percent.
Backed by many economists, the administration says the agreement with Vietnam and the other countries, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, would create U.S. jobs by opening up Asian countries to U.S. exports such as computers from California and paper products from Maine.
“This agreement will create a potential platform for economic integration across the Asia-Pacific region, a means to advance U.S. economic interests with the fastest-growing economies in the world,” U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk told Congress in late 2009 in announcing that negotiations were about to begin.
Moreover, importing shoes from Vietnam at lower costs would benefit some in the United States, either by reducing prices for consumers or raising profits for manufacturers that have their operations overseas.
But the example of New Balance, which has long resisted the exodus of American footwear manufacturers, highlights the fact that despite the benefits of free trade, it can also destroy some U.S. jobs, and those losses are felt more acutely in a time of high unemployment.
“We want to fight really hard to keep this business in Maine,” said Lori Cook, 28, a single mom with two kids. “I’d like to keep my job.”
The company’s primary concern is that any free-trade agreement with Vietnam would probably eliminate the steep tariff on footwear imported from that country, making Vietnamese sneakers even cheaper than they already are.
New Balance officials said removing the tariff would also undermine years of efforts at the company’s five New England factories to compete against cheap foreign labor. The plants employ 1,000 workers.