By Peijean Tsai
The Daily Journal
March 28, 2004

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-day series that looks at the Ukiah economy and how manufacturing jobs con tribute to it. Today's article will examine manufacturers that have left the Ukiah Valley.

Since Masonite shut down operations in Ukiah, the north side of town has been quiet.

Quiet, compared to the sounds of a mill that once employed more than 500 to manufacture truckloads of wood-based products. And still quieter than Masonite before its departure in 2001 with 280 employees, a population whittled down as technology replaced muscle over the company's five-decade stay in Ukiah.

The loss of hundreds of jobs left a hole in the landscape of a city that once bragged about the company's presence at its north and south gateways, with "Home of Masonite" etched into the town's welcome signs.

Where ma-and-pa stores rule the economy, a large employer will make a noticeable difference. And when that difference comes from an industry that pays living wages, the economic contribution to the community is a "pretty big deal," as John MacGregor, former Ukiah Masonite plant manager, would say.

"If a manufacturing facility is there, those jobs tend to be good jobs that pay fairly well and are somewhat good from a stability standpoint," MacGregor said. He retired from Masonite in 1991 after 26 years in various roles for the international-operated company.

Stability came in different forms. There were those who relied on the Ukiah mill as their employer for decades from the plant's inception in 1948 with its construction and 1950 when operations began. There were those who looked to Masonite for entry-level training during the summer or to enter the workforce out of high school.

"We used to hire dozens and dozens (of young people) in the summers," MacGregor said.

Historically, manufacturing jobs have offered high blue-collar wages. In 1948, manufacturing jobs paid the most in Mendocino County, $381.13 a month, compared to agriculture and fishing ($85.01), construction ($37.65), utilities ($76.39), trade ($96.77), finance ($9.46), service ($53.15) and government ($129.62), according to a county report published in 1951 by San Francisco-based Industrial Survey Associates.

Manufacturing wages still run considerably higher than minimum wage. The most recent data available from the state Employment Development Department showed that wages for food, wood and metal manufacturing employment ranged from $521 to $684 a week in the 2002 third quarter, or approximately $2,257 to $2,964 a month.

The current state minimum wage is $6.75, or $1,170 a month based on a 40-hour workweek.

The closure of Masonite produced a ripple effect on other high-paying blue-collar industries, such as freight companies that hauled wood and wood products in a loop from Ukiah to Southern California. This January, Cooper and Sons Trucking -- in Ukiah since 1948 -- shut down, succumbing to years of reduced business as a result of Masonite and other manufacturers leaving the Ukiah Valley.

"As a result of Masonite going out, it put pressure indirectly on me," said former General Manager Dennis Cooper, who took over his father's company with his brothers in 1978. He added that when Masonite closed, the trucking company that had hauled materials for Masonite looked to Cooper's territory for business.

The company, which paid its drivers between $10 to $15 an hour, had a fleet of 30 to 40 trucks at one time and was down to 15 when the brothers decided to sell their equipment and look for new jobs. At the end of the company's life, Cooper said the amount of available freight that needed to be shipped to and from local manufacturers wasn't enough to cover costs.

"I don't really feel that Ukiah has a lot to offer for a trucking company," Cooper said. "Take away the timber products, and what do you have?"

Manufacturing was a growing profession while the county's timber industry thrived, according to the 1951 Industrial Survey Associates report.

Mendocino County manufacturing grew more than any other industry between 1940 and 1950, jumping 139 percent -- from 1,856 to 4,430 employees -- while the county's overall employment growth climbed 59 percent from 8,480 to 13,504 workers.

In 1950, manufacturing comprised roughly one-third of all jobs in the county, according to the same report, or 25.4 percent of employment in Ukiah and the inland county.

Just before Masonite left Ukiah, wood product jobs had steadily dropped over a course of 30 years, from their hold on 35 percent to 40 percent of all county employment, to 10 percent in 1999.

Since then, still more wood-based manufacturers have felt the pressures of the changing economy. Georgia-Pacific Resins Inc., which produced resins for particleboard and hardboard, closed its Ukiah chemical plant in 2000, taking with it 22 workers and a manufacturer that had been in the valley since 1975. The Atlanta-based company also closed its Fort Bragg mill two years later, which had at one point employed hundreds.

Four years ago, Mendocino Forest Products, which took over the former Louisiana-Pacific mill in Ukiah, was running four mill shifts across its two mills in Ukiah and Fort Bragg. Last June, the Fort Bragg mill closed, and the Ukiah mill reduced operations to one shift.

Even nouveau manufacturing, which is less dependent on natural resources, has been facing the challenges of an economy that shifted in the 20th century from a goods-producing dominance to service sector employment. In 2000, the service industry comprised 52 percent of county jobs, with goods-producing 21 percent, according to a Dec. 2002 Applied Development Economics report.

Pacific Coast Flange, which manufactures connecting rings for water, sewer and oil pipes, will soon be moving its operations from Orr Springs Road in Ukiah to a 25,000-square foot site in Carson City, Nev. It's a decision President Mike Fite, who founded the company in 1995, said will assure continued competitive profits, as worker's compensation and other business costs rise in California.

"I love Ukiah," Fite said. "I consider this home, but unfortunately I can't work at home anymore."

Twenty of Fite's employees plan to move with the company, with the first three leaving Thursday.

While Fite's main reason for moving is the state's unfavorable business climate, local costs of operating in Ukiah also pose a challenge. Because of the low level of freight interaction in and out of town, he said, carriers tend to charge more to make up for not having full shipments.

What is good for a business' interest ultimately drives a manufacturer's decision to stay in Ukiah, leave or shut their doors altogether. Well-paying jobs are merely a by-product of a profit-seeking enterprise, said MacGregor.

"In general, American manufacturing companies are there to make goods and sell them and make a profit out of them," he added. "There are places whose missions are to create jobs. That wasn't Masonite's and that really isn't any major manufacturer's objective."