As the only remaining manufacturer of athletic shoes in the United States — with three factories in Maine and two in Massachusetts — New Balance wants government assurance that military servicemembers wear American-made sneakers, not ones that are made overseas.
In a letter to President Barack Obama, Maine Democratic representative Mike Michaud pointed out that the 1941 Berry Amendment stipulates "that DOD cannot procure food or clothing, among other items, unless the item is grown or produced in the U.S." But, when it comes to sneakers, the Department of Defense has found a loophole. Because the DOD allows servicemen and women to purchase athletic footwear with cash allowances (as opposed to outfitting them with sneakers), they circumvent the Berry Amendment.
"For decades the Defense Department procured American-made athletic footwear for our military's physical training uniforms, just like they procured American-made shoes for dress and combat uniforms," Michaud said in a statement. "But they recently stopped providing American-made shoes for our troops to train in, and that's just not right. We need to be doing everything we can to promote job creation in our country, especially during these difficult times."
Michaud has introduced a bill, the American Shoes for American Servicemembers Act, which clarifies that the Berry Amendment applies to footwear. His letter, however, asks the president to preclude legislative action by addressing the matter administratively. (Maine Republican senator Susan Collins, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has also been actively supporting this idea.)
New Balance acknowledges that such a government contract would be great for business, boosting predictability and volume while securing jobs (the company employs 800 people in Maine). In an effort to prove to the US government that they could make a Berry-compliant high-tech running shoe, New Balance manufactured 5000 such sneakers; these are currently sitting on shelves in Skowhegan — a "fairly sizeable investment," says company spokesman Matt LeBretton, who works at New Balance headquarters in Boston.
But it's not just about growing this one company, LeBretton adds. "We're creating our own competitors" by asking the government to seek bids among footwear manufacturers, he says.
As Michaud puts it, adhering to the Berry Amendment's original intent would "promote the US footwear manufacturing sector at a time when the industry is facing severe declines."