In an historic development, employees of Mendocino County's largest timber firm, Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), are threatening to boycott the company in response to recent management decisions that have undercut their wages and hours.
In a meeting a week ago, 18 disgruntled loggers met to air their grievances with MRC Chief Executive Officer Bob Mertz, a long-time timber industry executive who has been with MRC since July 2011. In the words of one logger who took part in the meeting, Mertz “just about crapped his pants” when he saw how many employees had filled the room, especially since they consisted of most of MRC's long-term workforce and included employees from all areas of the county — Fort Bragg, Anderson Valley, Ukiah, and elsewhere.
At issue are Mertz' decision in the last year to import crews from the Sierra Nevadas to carry out all aspects of the company's timber harvests (ie, cutting down trees and hauling them away). The work, until lately, has been done by local fellers, riggers, yarders, and skidder operators. Many of these long-time MRC employees have been displaced by labor from out of the area. According to two loggers I interviewed, MRC has also made a habit of waiting until other timber jobs dry up elsewhere before offering the loggers far lower wages as a quid quo pro for giving them any work at all.
In the meeting with Mertz, the loggers' complaints fell on deaf ears. The CEO of Mendocino County's largest timber firm refused to reverse his decisions. In the words of one logger who participated in the meeting, “What happens now is anyone's guess.”
Prior to assuming the helm of MRC's day-to-day operations, Mertz worked as general manager for more than a dozen years at California's largest timber firm and landholder, Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI). With 1.9 million acres of timberland, 3,600 employees and 14 sawmills, most of which are in California, Sierra Pacific has title to nearly two percent of California's landbase. Since arriving at MRC, Mertz has simultaneously cut employment costs – everything from wages to office supplies – while investing more money in MRC's Ukiah sawmill on North State Street at the confluence of Ackerman Creek and the Russian River.
“Mertz was sent here for one reason – to cut throats,” one long-time Mendocino County logger, who has worked extensively for MRC, tells me. “Many of us were born and raised here. We raised kids here. We pay taxes here. This is where we live. There are 15 to 20 really mad loggers that feel exactly the same way I do."
He continued, "And we are mad enough that we are prepared to boycott if the company doesn't address our grievances, which are basically that the company is trying to squeeze us into accepting less money, less work – less of what we need to survive and feed our families.”
Many environmental activists who have opposed MRC and Humboldt Redwood Company logging plans (those two companies being one and the same) discovered the tenor of the company's present management regime through interactions with Dennis Thibeault, the company's new vice president. Thibeault is a Bob Mertz man who Mertz hired away from Sierra Pacific Industries.
Whereas MRC President and Chief Forester Mike Jani and other company foresters, such as John Anderson, have distinguished themselves by being approachable – even friendly – in interactions with environmentalists. "A lot of environmental NGO staff members have crushes on them," one long-time environmental activist joked to me earlier this year. But Thibeault has been confrontational and defensive. In a tour of the Railroad Gulch THP in Albion, an MRC logging plan encompassing 758 acres that was filed last year, Thibeault admonished critics that “you just want us to go away, which frankly, won't work for us as a company.”
That THP initially raised alarms because it entailed a timber volume removal of 72 percent across a vast amount of acreage. A more typical MRC plan involves roughly 45 percent timber volume removal. Linda Perkins of the Albion River Watershed Protection Association, who tallied up the timber volume removal figures, complained to Mike Jani about the extent of logging, and Jani responded by having the plan scaled back. He claimed the initial THP had essentially contained clerical errors that led to an erroneous high volume removal. Some environmentalists, however, have feared that such incidents portend a new, more extractive approach to logging. While most don't like MRC's existing timber harvest operations, they may like Sierra Pacific Industries' even less.
Former MRC President Jim Holmes, who is Mertz' immediate predecessor, generally had a strong relationship with employees. One logger I talked to praised Holmes as “a good and honest man.”
Another logger warns that he and his colleagues are fully prepared to enter into an alliance with “Earth First!” and other environmentalists “if it comes to that.” Several were near the beginning of their careers during the 1990s Timber Wars era, when Louisiana Pacific (previous owner of MRC's land) engaged in highly destructive cut-and-run logging of their largest timber stands, which also had the effect of putting many loggers out of work.
“If the Earth Firsters get involved with us, it's going to cause the company an awful lot of trouble,” the logger says.
Between MRC and its so-called sister company, HRC, the company encompasses roughly 440,000 acres of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Sonoma counties. They own two of the only redwood sawmills remaining in California. The company dominates the redwood timber market. One of the only other games in town is Hawthorne Timber, which owns 110,000 acres in Mendocino County but is selling its holdings. MRC is rumored to be the lead contender to buy the land. There are few other places for workers to turn.
We'll continue to follow this story in the AVA.
Author's Note: I have postponed part two of my study on MRC's historic timber harvest methods until next week to present this breaking story.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that MRC CEO Bob Mertz met with the MRC workers and has made the decisions that have led to their grievances. It is actually Dennis Thibeault.