Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Crafty lobbying: bringing Johns-Manville to town

By Sam Bhagwat
of the Valley Mirror
300 jobs – brought here in large part because a local politician was golf buddies with a railroad president.

The Johns-Manville factory ranks with Thunderhill racetrack as the two big Glenn County developments in the last half-century.

“They knew how to do business,” recalls Matt Wiest, on the City Council at the time, in the late 1950s, as well as the chair of industrial development for the Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Wiest wouldn’t take visitors to his chiropractic clinic from eight to 10 a.m. each day; that was when he’d get a call from headquarters, in Denver.

The plant resource manager came out here, contacted the chamber of commerce, and settles on the best site for his purposes.

Their criteria: there was cheap power, a railroad, and the county was “dead set against unions.”

One of the things Manville needed was railroad cars for daily shipment of small fiberglass balls.

“‘We can’t do this unless you can guarantee us shipment,’” Mr. Wiest recalls hearing.

So he went to Ed Davis, publisher of the Willows Daily Journal, along with several much smaller publications – really just supermarket advertisers. “He pulls out letterheads of (all) five or six newspapers, and wrote up letter of support on all of them,” Mr. Wiest recalls.

At the meeting, Mr. Wiest recalls the president of Southern Pacific refusing to start the meeting without his vice-presidents around; scared of being outnumbered, Mr. Wiest thinks.

“They finally gave us permission because of the assemblyman from Chico, Ray Johnson, who happened to be the golf buddy of the president. They talked in private.

The factory now works without daily shipment, “but at the time, it was a deal-breaker.”

The factory was helped along locally, Mr. Wiest thinks, because potential opponents didn’t take it seriously.

“We did have cooperation with almost everybody. The political class that had stifled development before, didn’t think the thing was going to happen.

“When Johns-Manville came here, they didn’t think it was going to happen. When the permit was approved they didn’t think it was going to happen. When they turned a spade, they didn’t think it was going to happen.”

“It was developed before anyone knew it.”

The labor pool impact was large, Mr. Wiest recalls.

“Johns-Manville paid a basic wage of two to three times what farm labor did.”

He recalls a conversation with a local diesel mechanic then. Asking the mechanic how much he made, Mr. Wiest was told $2 an hour for regular work.

And overtime?, Mr. Wiest asked.

$2 an hour.

“I said, down in LA, you’d get $8 an hour.”

Short #1: ‘No jobs because workers are lazy’ Really?

Why does the unemployment rate in Glenn County hover around twice the national average?

Discussing how he’s having trouble finding reliable, hard workers to farm his land, farmer and long-time supervisor Keith Hansen argues that the lack is usually in willingness to work, not in the availability of jobs around the county.

“Most of the people who want a job have a job,” he says.

We’ll investigate Mr. Hansen’s claim, beginning next issue with an extensive history of how locals blocked a power plant that could have brought at least 300 jobs to Glenn County.

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