Collins: Defense Department 'Strung Along' New Balance in Military Sneaker Contract

Apr 12, 2016

New Balance, which employs 900 people in Maine, has renewed its opposition to a trade deal that would allow cheaper imports from abroad.

New Balance officials say they’ve broken their silence over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, because the Obama administration has failed to offer the company a chance for a contract to sell sneakers to the military. Members of Maine’s congressional delegation share New Balance’s concerns.

In the eyes of New Balance, the TPP is the worst trade deal they’ve ever seen. It’s a free-trade agreement for a dozen countries, including Vietnam, which is a prime competitor for the shoe company.

“Vietnam is the fastest growing producer of footwear in the world today,” says New Balance spokesman Matt LeBretton.

Vietnam already has a competitive edge when it comes to making shoes, LeBretton says, because it can produce them at lower cost. By phasing out tariffs, the TPP would tip the scales even further in Vietnam’s favor.

Still, New Balance held its tongue about the TPP for nearly a year, he says, because federal officials told the company that if it did so, New Balance would get a shot at a military contract.

“The Obama administration said, ‘Look, we know you’re really intent on pursuing selling shoes to the military — 100 percent domestically made shoes to the military. If you work with us on TPP, we’ll do everything we can to make sure you have an opportunity to bid for this military opportunity,’” LeBretton says.

Ever since, he says, the Department of Defense has put up roadblock after roadblock.

“The military, the way they buy shoes now, there’s no specification of what should be in a shoe. That’s OK. They’re buying them basically off the shelf. We designed and developed a shoe specifically for the rigors of basic training. We submitted it to them for review. They told us it would take 180 days per shoe style to test,” LeBretton says.

With three shoe styles and what he says was the Department’s refusal to test them concurrently, testing would take a year and a half. LeBretton says that just doesn’t add up.

“Let me tell you what the testing program is,” he says. “It’s 15 or so volunteers going running for two weeks with shoes we provide at zero cost to the military, and then they come home and fill out a little check sheet at the end of their runs. That’s a two-week process, not a six month process.”

“What the Department of Defense did is string them along for years,” says Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Collins says she shares New Balance’s disappointment and anger. A law called the Berry Amendment requires the Department of Defense to give preference to purchasing uniforms manufactured in the U.S. Collins says the Department complies with the law with the notable exception of sneakers.

“Instead of being rewarded for keeping its domestic manufacturing in the United States, New Balance is being penalized and I don’t think that’s right,” she says.

Collins says she and independent U.S. Sen. Angus King have introduced legislation in the past to address the issue, and they’ll likely revive that effort.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of Maine’s 2nd District says the Republican is working to add language to the National Defense Authorization Act to ensure the Pentagon fully implements the Berry Amendment.

LeBretton says New Balance just wants a fair shot at the military contract, and that it will support the Trans-Pacific Partnership if the appropriate safeguards are in place.

“The government wants to let Vietnam take all the footwear production in the world. That seems to be their goal. We say no. These 1,400 manufacturing jobs we have in Maine and Massachusetts, and the supply chains and the workers that work in the supply chains, really matter,” he says.

A request for comment to the Department of Defense was not returned by airtime.