Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker walked through a mechanic’s shop in Mattapan, a leather goods manufacturer in Worcester, and a pressed metal company in Westborough Monday, listening as workers talked about their jobs and their lives and as bosses described business successes and regulatory woes.
Most manufacturers in the state are small, said Baker, who plans to spend this week focused on the needs of small businesses, which account for about 98 percent of all employers in Massachusetts, according to federal government statistics.
“I want people to see that there’s more to Massachusetts than education, health care, and biotech,” Baker said outside the pressed metal company, the sound of massive machines cutting metal nearly drowning him out.
“There’s still a significant amount of manufacturing in Massachusetts, and watering it ought to be one of the things we think about in respect to our economic policy,” he said.
Baker released several economic proposals yesterday, including increasing the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour and giving small businesses tax credits to offset the wage increase. His proposal also calls for helping low-income residents by doubling the state’s earned-income tax credit.
On Monday morning, Baker visited two Mattapan businesses: Brothers Deli and Restaurant and Auto Service and Tire. In the afternoon, he stepped into Abas Leather Accessories in Worcester, the city where Democrats will gather for their state convention later this week. Baker faces Tea Party candidate Mark Fisher in the GOP primary.
Abas Leather has been in its Fremont Street building for almost 30 years. It once employed 600 people, but has about 50 on its payroll today.
Baker and company president James Devaney entered a massive room filled with calf hides but no people.
“When we put in this manufacturing system, we used to make 85,000 products a week,” Devaney said. “This floor used to house 180 people. Today, the whole floor is vacant.”
About 25 more employees will be hired to ramp up for the holiday season, he said, adding that the company, which was hurt by cheaper overseas labor costs, has the capacity to do 25 percent more than it is manufacturing, “if we could get a fair price,’’ Devaney said.
Throughout the building, dyed alligator, goat, and calf hides rested in bundles on shelves or over railings not far from the finished products: royal blue iPad cases, green cellphone cases, bright-orange credit card holders, and pink wallets. On the second floor, machines cut out the pieces that would become baseball gloves, some custom-made and emblazoned with logos of college teams.
Although much of the stitching and cutting of the leather is automated, people must ensure those things are done in a precise manner, so lines are not crooked, worker Larry Johnson said. People assemble the pieces, checking the quality of the raw material and finished product.
“Every piece is unique,” said Devaney. “The people are really skilled. If there was just some formal way to bring this type of industry back.”
Twelve miles away in Westborough, Baker toured a completely different type of factory, where officials say they are concerned with state regulations impeding their ability to compete on a larger scale. Large machines at Carlstrom Pressed Metal Co. Inc. cut metal into everything from parts for HVAC systems to English muffin tins to rowing machine rails to church offertory plates.
The company, which has about 16 employees, was founded in 1950 by the grandfather of its president, David Carlstrom.
As he showed Baker the facility and some of its original products, including the metal plate for an iron and a part for a large-scale weapon, Carlstrom said his wish is for a governor who can ease and streamline the permitting process that often impedes manufacturers from expanding or moving to Massachusetts.
“Our neighbors built down in Kentucky,” he said referring to RKW Dana Films, which considered expanding its plant in Westborough but did not. What would have taken about six months in Massachusetts to get all the paperwork approved, happened almost instantaneously there, said Carlstrom and RKW Dana Films’ plant manager Clark Sylvester.
“The permitting stuff hurts us,” Carlstrom said. “. . . If there’s one thing I want from the next governor, it’s to make a state that’s business-friendly, that we can compete on a global scale. If Boeing or Honda is looking to build a factory, Massachusetts isn’t on that list.”