Commotion is everywhere, row after row: snipping, stitching, scurrying.
Sewing machines grumble as the women make vinyl boot legs with uppers. Buckets of soles are wheeled down bare wooden floors scarred by almost a century of wear.
But amid the din and bantering camaraderie, Lorraine Pendergast, a redhaired grandmother of eight, stops to voice the fear shared by many of the 750 workers remaining out of the 2,200 here a decade ago at Lawrence Maid Shoe Co:
"Honey, any shoe you bring in here I can make, not that I want to brag - but I just can't compete with the labor prices in those other countries. Hey listen, I'm 53 years old. I can't learn something new."
Because she's still working, she is among the lucky. Since tariffs were lowered in 1968, some 300 plants have closed and 70,000 jobs lost as imports rose from 22 per cent of American shoe purchases to 46 per cent, according to the International Trade Commission.
President Carter must decide by April 8 whether to accept, reject or modify the increased shoe tariff recommended as a remedy by the commission in January. No decision has been made yet, administration officials say, but Carter campaigned on free trade and on the conventional economic remedy of federal aid to workers, factories and communities hurt by imports.
But for the shoe industry, such "trade adjustment assistance," instituted in 1962, expanded by Congress in 1974 and expeditted by then - President Ford a year ago, has failed dismally.
Officials in the departments of Commerce and Labor administering the assistance admit that it has been little more than a public dole for laid-off workers, adding to unemployment compensation while retraining barely a handful. Few firms have received or even applied for theavailable loans to modernize or diversify. Only one community, Sedalis, Mo., has ever sought the funds available for industrial development - and it was turned down last year.
But these programs can be made to work by cutting bureaucratic requirements and actively encouraging participation, the officials say.
The trade commission's solution for the ills of the shoe industry, however, is a "tariff rate quote." This would increase tariffs on nonrubber footwear from the current 10 per cent to 40 per cent on imports exceeding a country's 1974 - but will raise prices on inexin effect for three years, then phase out over the next two, supposedly giving the American industry a "breathing spell" to recuperate.
The measure will have little effect on expensive shoes from Europe - Italian imports are actually down from 1974 - but will raise prices on inexpensive shoes from less developed countries. Shoe imports from Taiwan, for instance, have more than doubled in two years; and those from South Korea have expanded almost 15 times; the two countries now account for over half of all imports.
The resultant demise of the American shoe industry and failure of adjustment assistance is particularly visible in New England. It was in drab red brick shoe and textile factories, such as those of Lawrence Maid lining the heavily polluted Merrimac River, that the nation's industrial revolution was founded.
Many of these once-proud landmarks of small New England towns stand empty and gutted today. In massachusetts alone, 90 shoe factories have shut down since 1968, putting some 17,000 people out of work, according to the American Footwear Industry Association.
History and prevailing economic theory has it that such rudimentary, labor-intensive industries shift from technological nations such as the United States to less developed nations seeking - and needing - to climb onto the industrial development ladder in order to progress economically. Labor there is less skilled but cheap: 51 cents an hour in Taiwan, according to the footwear industry.
But the American shoe worker being displaced is also only semi-skilled. Two-thirds of them are women, middle-aged and older, the industry says. The average wage is $3.50 an hour, a wide differential compared to developing nations but paltry by American standards.
Retraining of such workers is difficult. Moreover, 70 per cent of the shoe factories are in one-factory towns, according to the industry. There are few other nearby jobs for which to be retrained. The Labor Department does provide job hunting and moving expenses under the trade adjustment program, but typical shoe workers have not been prone to leave their roots or the jobs of their spouse, officials say.
Even if they were, the next hurdle is unemployment in the nation generally.
"Retraining for what?" asks John Mara, head of the Boot and Shoeworkers' Union. "I want the economists to tell me what alternatives are available. Picking tomatoes in California?"
Of the 142,000 jobless workers in all industries who have been certified over the past year to receive extra benefits because imports contributed to the loss of their jobs, only 2,000 have taken the proffered year or more of free training at accredited schools or on the job, according to the Labor Department.
Most are simply receiving the cash benefits, which pile on top of unemployment compensation up to 70 per cent of their former wages.
When the Randy tennis shoe company in the once thriving shoe center of Randolph, Mass., closed last November, almost 600 workers lost their jobs. Today, 450 are still receiving the added unemployment benefits and only 19 are learning a new trade, according to the regional Labor Department office.
The states administer the retraining programs, and federal coordination has been poor, Labor Department officials acknowledged. But they say an additional problem has been that union leaders - who don't relish losing even unemployed members - have not encouraged the learning of other trades.
For firms, the Trade Act of 1974 loosened the eligibility for adjustment assistance. A year ago, President Ford rejected an earlier trade commission recommendation to increase shoe tariffs, and instead shortened time requirements for government decisions on aid applications, prompting the Commerce Department to predict that 202 firms would apply by now.
By last month, however, only 25 applied, 16 were certified, and four received loans.
"It's a Catch-22 situation," explains Fawn Evanson, chief representative of the industry association. "You have to be so sick before you're certified that you're too far gone for help."
Shoe manufactureres complain that the government - given or guaranteed loans of up to $4 million to modernize equipment, pay debts, or diversify into other products charge interest two percentage points higher than the prime market rate.
To get the loans, the firms must comply with a number of government requirements, such as affirmative action hiring and environmental protection. Reporting is complicated and costly for the small firms that often need the loans most. Moreover, the officers and principal stockholders of the corporations are subject to FBI investigations of their finances and personal backgrounds.
"Success depends a great deal on the willingness of the firms to adjust," says Patricia Keeler, planning and program head of the Economic Development Administration. "Some just haven't been interested in getting out of shoes and getting into something else."
"We just don't want the government in our hair," responds Lawrence Maid vice president Patrick J. Roche.
Communities whose economic base has been eroded by import damage to local industry can also be awarded industrial development funds under the trade act. But EDA officials admit that they advise communities to seek other funds because of the intricate reporting requirements and red tape.
Some shoe manufacturers privately allow that many of the dead companies might have folded regardless of imports because of mismanagement and outdated equipment. But they say that even with the most efficient equipment, shoe manufacturing remains labor-instensive, and thus vulnerable to imports.