Monday, April 14, 2014

In (department of) defense of the shoe industry

Although my “real” career has been in high tech marketing, I did make an early professional foray into the shoe industry.

Professional may be too grand a word to describe my minimum wage job at H.H. Brown. There I worked near the end of the assembly line as a finisher, responsible for putting shoe polish on the exposed seams of combat boots (black for the Army, brown for the Air Force – or was it the other way around?), and for using acetone to remove glue and other gunk that got onto the boots while they made their journey from piece of hide to shoe box. While I was busy as a finisher, my friend Kim – now a partner in a major Boston law firm – was working a few tables behind me as a “heel podder”, gluing thin strips of leather on the inside heel position of a boot.

My biggest nightmare as a shoe factory hand was the day they took me off finishing and set me to the task of removing boots as they came down the vertical conveyor belt from the second floor, and pulling out any nails that were protruding from the innards of the boots.

It took me about two minutes to figure out why the other folks who performed this task had their fingers swathed in adhesive tape. But I had no adhesive tape, so I had to feel around in those boots very gingerly.

Since I was so slow, I did not in the least keep up with the boots raining down on me from the second floor. I just let them go back from whence they came, while I slowly did my voyage of nail discovery, and yanked any nails I found out with a pair of pliers.

It was only when the former came raging over to me to tell me I was useless, and sent me back to finishing (where I bled all over those exposed boot seams for the remainder of my shift), that I found that if I didn’t remove a pair of boots from the conveyor belt, it dropped off somewhere in the bowels of the factory.

Live and learn that I really had no future in shoe biz.

Not that many folks in America did, especially in New England, where, by the time I was working at H.H. Brown, most of the shoe factories had gone south. Since then, they’ve mostly migrated to China and Vietnam.

But, apparently, the combat boot business stayed in the U.S., thank to a World War II era law:

Under a provision of 1941 legislation known as the Berry Amendment, the Defense Department must buy boots, uniforms and certain other items that are 100% U.S.-made. (Source: WSJ Online)

There are Berry Amendment get-arounds:

It can make exceptions if U.S. manufacturers don't have the capacity to make what it needs, and has done so for athletic shoes needed for boot camp.

The Army, Navy and Air Force "allow members to select and wear the type and size of athletic shoe that provides the greatest comfort and reduces the potential for injury," regardless of where they are made, a Defense Department official said.

Well, the shoe industry – particularly in the M-states: Massachusetts, Maine, and Michigan, where sneaks are made – are pushing lawmakers to get rid of the sneaker exemption.

Shoemakers have to demonstrate that they’re capable of producing the sneakers that the armed forces need. If they do so, the Department of Defense may rule that G.I. soft footwear be born in the USA.

Local shoe darling, New Balance, is one of the companies lobbying for home-grown athletic footwear. New Balance:

…is the only U.S. maker of athletic shoes with large-scale production in the U.S. Its five U.S. plants in Massachusetts and Maine make about 25% of its shoes sold in the U.S.; the rest are imported.

New Balance spokesman Matt LeBretton said the company has spent more than $1 million on equipment and training to produce the midsole, which is normally imported. Orders from the military could create 200 jobs at New Balance, which employs about 2,900 in the U.S., and more at suppliers, he said.

Reebok and Converse are also from around here. Don’t know that much about what Reebok’s up to, but if the military’s worried about safety, it’s hard to believe that Converse’s Jack Purcell’s or canvas high-top Chucks would fit the bill. (In case you’re wondering, Jack Purcell was a badminton player. Chuck Taylor was a salesman/shoe evangelist.)

The armed forces give recruits stipends of about $65 to $70 to spend on athletic shoes, though sometimes it makes them buy a particular brand. Mr. LeBretton said New Balance could supply shoes in that range. "This might actually save them a few bucks," he said.

Sixty-five to seventy bucks, huh? I guess that rules of Nike Lebrons…

While New Balance is already making shoes domestically, Wolverine – which has Keds as one of its brands – could make sneakers in Michigan, if they had a market for U.S. made sneaks.

The military still has to be persuaded that U.S. shoe companies can ensure all recruits get the right fit and style. Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, cited the stresses soldiers undergo during long runs at boot camp.

Worried about fit, style, and stress? Whatever happened to, This Is The Army, Mr. Jones?

Anyway, I’d just as soon have the sneakers that our service men and women wear made in the USA.

Forget that old saying about the Army moving on its stomach. The Army runs on its athletic shoes.

Let them all be made in an M-state.


Thanks to my sister Kath – who also put in time at H.H. Brown, I believe as a shoe boxer - for pointing this article out.

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