By Peter Whoriskey, Published: July 28
NORRIDGEWOCK, Maine — At the factory here owned by New Balance, the last major athletic shoe brand to manufacture footwear in the United States, even workers on the shop floor recognize that in purely economic terms, the operation doesn’t make sense.
The company could make far more money if, like Nike and Adidas, it shifted virtually all of these jobs to low-wage countries.
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.