Steel workers fear layoffs

February 6, 2008 9:21:01 PM PST
Labor and management appear to be on the same side during a dispute at an East Bay plant.

A Berkeley city council member is denying there's any attempt to shut down a local factory. But the employees and the company aren't convinced.

Hundreds of foundry workers took time off the job for a union rally with their boss's permission.

"If they change the permit, and they put a lot of conditions on that permit, that means that this company cannot operate. That means there's going to be layoffs," said Union Local 164B Vice President Ignacio De La Fuente.

Layoffs are a big fear at pacific steel castings. Neighbors in surrounding West Berkeley have been concerned about their health from factory emissions.

Now, they're suspicious the city council is attempting to shut down the plant.

"I have seven kids, and they're all going to school, and I feel, as I told you, I work 29 years here, and I feel like part of this, and something happens, I don't know," said Pacific Steel Casting foreman Alex Hernandez.

Pacific Steel is one of the last foundries in the U.S. It casts metal parts for heavy equipment and oil derricks. Most of that work has gone overseas.

The plant opened 74 years ago. Over time, the area has become a mixture of small retail shops, cafes and offices.

Thousands of homes are downwind. A recently completed health study puts nearby workers and residents at less risk for cancer than the bay area on average.

Now, city council member Linda Maio is trying to label odors from the plant a public nuisance. It's on next week's council agenda.

"The problems with Pacific Steel's health impact to the community go far beyond odor," said Maio.

That doesn't satisfy L A Wood, a resident who remains worried about health risk.

"I think there is a certain need to understand the health in that area, and if the city would determine Pacific Steel needed to move, then I would be in full support of that," said Berkeley resident L A Wood.

Pacific Steel has spent several million dollars to reduce emissions.

"We've spent more money on environmental than any equipment. If we could spend that money on equipment, we could compete with China," said Pacific Steel Casting General Manager Joe Emmerichs.

The face-off continues.