The privately held sneaker company—long an opponent of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement—welcomed the election of Mr. Trump as a reprieve from the policies of President Barack Obama.
“The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction,” Matthew LeBretton, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, said in an interview on Wednesday.
The comments sparked controversy on social media, with hundreds of users posting on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that they would throw out their sneakers or boycott the brand. Some posted videos setting their shoes on fire. Others uploaded photos of the shoes in the garbage.
Right. New Balance shoes are made in Norridgewock, Maine, pop.3,500 -
To illustrate how ingrained the company is in this central Maine town, residents say you can’t throw a rock without hitting someone who works for or knows someone who works for New Balance. If you run into a local who isn’t wearing New Balance sneakers, most will say they have a pair or two waiting at home.
In Norridgewock, which has fewer than 3,500 residents, residents, business owners and community officials have come to the defense of the company. They say the controversy is overblown, and they hope it doesn’t hurt the workers who rely on these hard-to-come-by jobs.
“In Norridgewock we don’t see New Balance as a company, we see them as a member of the community — a positive, proactive presence,” Norridgewock Town Manager Richard LaBelle said Wednesday.
New Balance is a major employer in Maine, with about 900 people on its payroll scattered across a trio of facilities. About 400 employees punch a timecard at the New Balance plant near Norridgewock’s short downtown stretch. Another 332 associates work at another facility in neighboring Skowhegan. The company employs another 170 workers at a manufacturing site in Norway.
The company’s footprint in Maine stretches beyond the towns where its factories are located. In 2011, New Balance gave the University of Maine $5 million to help fund an overhaul of the Orono campus field house and Memorial Gymnasium. In exchange, the university named the field house and its student recreation center after the sneaker company. Politicians from former U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud to current U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin have visited the factories and worn New Balance sneakers on the stump to show their support for the industry.
The company’s continued operations in Maine stand in contrast to the loss of manufacturing jobs in other locales in central and northern Maine, where other shoe companies shut down decades ago and where a series of more recent paper mill closings still sting.
In the early 1980s, New Balance took over the shuttered Norridgewock factory previously run by Norrwock Shoe Co. — a business the late philanthropist Harold Alfond started in 1940 and built into a successful enterprise before selling it four years later.
Today, its employees churn out about 2,500 pairs of shoes each day, according to New Balance Plant Manager Raye Wentworth.
New Balance bills itself as the only major footwear company still producing athletic shoes in the United States — assembling about 4 million pairs per year in the country. It has stressed its made-in-America image at a time when U.S. manufacturing is becoming harder and harder to come by.
LaBelle said New Balance has been a vital contributor to the community. It holds an annual service day in which the factories shut down and employees take the day to work on other projects in the community. The company’s employees have helped build playgrounds, helped in food kitchens, supplied shoes at warming shelters and are planning to fix up a gazebo in the community in the spring, LaBelle said.
“They’re always the first at the table to do what they can to help,” LaBelle said. “Norridgewock wouldn’t be Norridgewock without New Balance.”
New Balance employees around town on their lunch breaks declined to comment for this article, as the company requires media requests to filter through public relations officials.
“Our communities count on us,” Wentworth said. “We pride ourselves on doing good in our communities where we live and work. We don’t just make shoes.”
It’s also unlikely many people in around New Balance’s Maine hubs would take offense to New Balance’s support of Trump or criticisms of the Obama administration. For example, about 58 percent of voters in Somerset County, home to Norridgewock and Skowhegan, favored Trump for the presidency, according to election results.
Gehri Rinaldi lives nearby on Norridgewock’s Main Street. She sells homemade wreaths and holiday decorations out of her house to make some money around the holidays. Her husband is searching for work, she said. She has five sons and 13 grandchildren.
Rinaldi said she thinks the New Balance controversy has been overblown — an overreaction to an opinion expressed by a company official. Calling for boycotts would only serve to hurt the employees at these factories, she argued.
If New Balance were to go away?
“We’d be done,” she said, though she doesn’t believe it will come to that. “If you don’t work in the woods here, or in a mill or in a factory, where do you work?”
So what shoes do the SJWs approve of? Nike, which, though based in Beaverton, Oregon, makes its shoes in various Asian countries and so supports Obama's Pacifi Trade Treaty. Now that's social justice, somehow.
Here's one of Nike's sweat shops: