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Norway woman joins trip to D.C. in support of tariffs
WASHINGTON WORKERS — Sherry Piirainen, second from left, traveled to Washington D.C. in July with a group of fellow New Balance employees from Norridgewok, ME, Lawrence, MA and Boston, MA. The workers met with members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to encourage them to prevent lowering U.S. footwear tariffs. The tariffs are part of a free-trade agreement between countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Advocates worry that with lowered tariffs, New Balance and other companies would be forced to close their U.S. manufacturing facilities in order to stay competitive.
NORWAY — Sherry Piirainen seems to truly enjoy working at the New Balance facility in Norway.
"I'm seeking out leadership opportunities within the company, just because I believe in them so much," she says, "more than I have with anywhere I've ever worked before."
The shoe company has three manufacturing facilities in Maine – in Norway, Skowhegan and Norridgewok. The company prides itself on keeping jobs in the U.S. – about 25 percent of the company's production occurs in its five New England facilities.
New Balance has succeeded in holding onto domestic manufacturing jobs, but if the U.S. enters into a comprehensive trade agreement under the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a group of eight Pacific nations – those jobs might be at risk.
The subject of the TPP debate is U.S. footwear tariffs. Advocates are urging President Obama to preserve the tariffs. Without them, they argue, domestic manufacturing won't be able to compete with countries like Vietnam.
Off to D.C.
In July, Piirainen joined other New Balance workers and CEO Rob DeMartini in Washington D.C. for "Made in America Footwear Day."
The goal? – to give New Balance employees a chance to present Capitol Hill decision-makers with the workers whose lives would be affected as a consequence of lowering the footwear tariff.
"What we were there to do was basically just tell our story," Piirainen says.
The group met with Maine Congressmen Mike Michaud and Senator Olympia Snowe, as well as several U.S. representatives from Massachusetts and U.S. Trade Representative Ambassador Ron Kirk.
Michaud has been at the forefront of the push to preserve footwear tariffs and provide protections for domestic manufacturing in the TPP.
In a letter to President Obama in late July, Michaud said the U.S. manufacturing sector was the key to the country's economic recovery and global competitiveness – if undermined by the TPP, it could prove disastrous.
"Because of its expansive size and growing membership, TPP has the potential to benefit foreign companies at the devastating expense of U.S. producers and is likely to deny American manufacturers the opportunity to compete on a level playing field," Michaud warned.
Piirainen knows that scenario could affect hundreds of workers like herself.
Piirainen said she went to D.C. to represent Norway. She told the officials that lowering tariffs could mean the loss of the Norway facility, one of the few sources of high-paying jobs in the area.
It could also mean the area would lose an important philanthropic patron, Piirainen says – New Balance has proved to be a generous source of support in the community.
Moreover, the company has provided good-paying meaningful jobs for its employees.
Sense of pride
Piirainen is proud to work at the New Balance facility. Before this job she worked at a bank and at Wal-Mart, and she feels the company respects its employees – she earns a good salary, the benefits package is excellent and she feels like the company is standing behind her.
"Everything that they can give to us, they give to us," Piirainen says.
Moreover, there is a sense of pride that comes from knowing that what you made will be will be worn, maybe even by someone you know – Piirainen says that New Balance workers even put the products they make up against their competitors.
"We all talk about checking out the shoes in the sporting goods stores and comparing quality of our shoes to those of other countries," she says. "On the shelf, you can see a difference between an overseas product and ours."
The work itself, however, is strenuous. When Piirainen was hired in 2010, she wasn't sure if she would be able to handle the pace.
"I struggled," she admits. "We have to go very fast and put out a quality product at the same time. In my mind, it was too fast for me."
In order to remain competitive in a global market, the assembly line has to work at break-neck speed.
"We do a job that's pretty much the job that eight people over there would do," she explains.
Despite the doomsday predictions that TPP will spell the death of New Balance's U.S. manufacturing, Piirainen is confident the company will stand behind its employees – especially after her trip to D.C.
"Back in the 80s ... when Nike and everyone went overseas, they could have just as easily packed up and done the same thing and they fought for us then," she says.
"Here's another stone to step over and they're going to fight for us again."