NORWAY — One worker slips uppers onto forms. The next marries uppers and soles. There’s a quick spin in a pressurized mold, then a flurry as hands check seams, attach tags, tuck tissue paper into toes, fold this way and that. Enter shoebox, and done.

A pair of sneakers in less than three minutes.

And repeat, say, 2.4 million times.

The New Balance factory here will celebrate its 15th anniversary in October. The plant turns out 12,000 pairs of sneakers a day, up from 9,800 in January. During a tour Monday, Factory Manager Darian Keaten said workers are always getting better. He’s added about 15 more in the past nine months.

The plant employs 160 people from as far away as Lewiston-Auburn and Rumford. The first perk for every new hire: a coupon for a free pair of sneakers at the outlet store in Oxford.

Keaten and New Balance want to keep those sneakers coming.

New Balance is the last athletic shoemaker in the U.S., and it’s been the last one standing for 20 years. Of the company’s 1,400 U.S. workers, almost 900 are in Maine scattered among plants in Norway, Norridgewock and Skowhegan.

U.S. trade representative, Ambassador Ron Kirk, will tour the Norridgewock factory Thursday, part of the company’s continued press to get him to intervene in a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. New Balance wants to see shoe tariffs kept in place.

“Vietnam is the fastest-growing producer of footwear for export in the world,” New Balance spokesman Matt LeBretton said. “Currently, they’re second only to China in total exportation of footwear, so they’re already winning.

“Everything else is made overseas and nobody’s making here,” he said. “If you want to go zero tariff, that’s fine. But when you’re looking at what’s being made here today and the jobs that are accounted for, you have to take that into consideration as you go through these negotiations.”

In the 1960s, Maine had nearly 27,000 shoemaking jobs. The past three years, it’s held steady at 1,300.

“(New Balance is) a big part of what’s left,” said Glenn Mills, chief economist at the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

‘Faces behind trade agreements’

At the Norway factory, Eric Riendeau, human resources supervisor, said he looks for workers with critical-thinking skills. Assembly-line positions start at $12 an hour plus benefits. On the factory floor, under nearly 20-foot-high ceilings and bright lights in the former Norway Footwear building, employees work in teams assembling pre-laced uppers and soles on dozens of styles of sneakers, sizes 6AA to 18EEEEEE for men, 5AA to 13EE for women.

“They make it look fairly easy,” Riendeau said. “There really is some craftsmanship.”

One worker inspects 300 pairs a day at random for quality control. These uppers come from Asia. At the two other Maine plants, uppers are made from scratch.

To keep a healthy work force, a physical therapist is on-site in Norway three days a week. A nurse drops by twice a week.

The company pays workers to volunteer in the community, a total of 364 hours last year, cleaning trails, helping schoolchildren and playing bingo in local nursing homes.

“Even if they don’t work here, they can say they’re proud to have us in the community,” said Keaten, who has been with New Balance since 1982. “I think the biggest impact is providing the reasonably well-paying jobs to all our associates so they can create a reasonable living in Oxford Hills.”

New Balance started in 1972 with six people making shoes outside Boston, Mass., LeBretton said. Its U.S. employment now is at an all-time high. In recent years, growth has allowed expansions in places like Norway.

It is “huge” to have the time and attention of Ambassador Kirk, LeBretton said. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation arranged the visit.

After touring the plant, the ambassador will meet workers and answer their questions.

“You very rarely hear people talk about the human face behind these trade agreements,” LeBretton said. “For Ambassador Kirk to come in and see the people making shoes here is really critical for our agreement, so he understands a place like Norway, Norridgewock or Skowhegan; these are not New York City. (Hundreds of jobs) actually means something in these regions.”

Negotiations now will set the stage for a congressional vote in a year or two, he said. “We do need some protections to keep growing in the United States and to keep employing Americans.”

Nike, Reebok and even New Balance make shoes in Vietnam. LeBretton said he’s skeptical that dropped tariffs would lower consumer prices; more likely, it would mean lower prices to retailers and potentially “predatory” pricing to try to drive a competitor, such as New Balance, out of the market.

“Some of the traditional names — Bass, Dexter, Sebago — at some point, they started moving production to the Caribbean,” said Mills, the Department of Labor economist. Other jobs went to China. There were likely many factors, Mills said, but it’s easy to say lower wages were one draw.

“Think about the Lewiston-Auburn area, the shoe shops, all those brick buildings,” he said.

At its height, shoemaking jobs represented about 8 percent of all jobs in Maine. Now it’s 0.2 percent.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, plans to join Kirk in Norridgewock on Thursday. He’s worn a pair of New Balance shoes in Congress. He also has given sneakers to President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to bring attention to the tariff issue and a law that says the Department of Defense should be outfitting service members in American-made clothes and shoes.

Vietnam, one of almost a dozen countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has been adamant about dropping tariffs on textiles and athletic footwear, Michaud said.

“I think they’re going to hold out until they get what they want in one of those two areas,” he said. “I don’t want (American footwear) to be thrown under the bus just so they can get Vietnam to sign the trade deal.”

Michaud once heard a former trade ambassador declare that athletic shoe tariffs should be dropped, “since we do not manufacture them anymore in the U.S., anyway.”

He said there is sometimes a disconnect between those who are making the decisions and the real world, he said, which makes Kirk’s visit all the more important.

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