The angry cries of several hundred Pacific Steel workers eclipsed the sound of bullhorns and jeers from the pro- and anti-war demonstrators outside the Old City Hall Tuesday to hear the Berkeley City Council rescind their resolution on the Marine Recruiting Center.
The workers turned up with families, friends and local activists around 7 p.m. to protest Berkeley Councilmember Linda Maio’s proposal to declare the West Berkeley-based foundry a “public nuisance” and refer it to the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board for odor abatement.
After an hour-long public hearing, the council voted unanimously to enter into an agreement with Pacific Steel to cut odor and emissions within a specific timeline.
“We don’t support the war in Iraq and we don’t support the council’s effort to drive us out of the city,” said Union Local 164B Vice President Ignacio De La Fuente to roars of approval from his supporters.
De La Fuente addressed the union members from the City Hall steps while officers from the Berkeley Police Department controlled the crowd clustered inside metal barricades.
Only 20 people were allowed to address the council on the matter. The rest egged them on with applause and cheers as they heard the live telecast from the lawn.
The group contended that if the city mandates conditions on the plant’s current permit, it might force the company to shut its Second Street site.
Pacific Steel laid off around 30 workers on Friday, claiming that clients were canceling orders due to the uncertainty of the company’s future. De La Fuente had told the Planet last week that the plant had fired 60 workers (a figure that was confirmed by Pacific Steel’s spokesperson at the time), but he halved that figure on Tuesday (which was also confirmed as the accurate number by the company on Thursday).
“One of our biggest clients, PAC Car, said they don’t want to do business with us anymore,” Joe Emmerichs, general manager of Pacific Steel, told the Planet Tuesday.
“Many of our customers have been with us for decades. They are aware of the action the city is taking against the company. They submit their orders many months in advance of receiving castings and will not tolerate any interruption in supply.” Judy Maldonado told the council: “I, my mom, dad, husband and two brothers all work at Pacific Steel. My second baby is coming ... Pacific Steel is a safe place to work. We can take care of our babies because we have jobs at Pacific Steel ... Please work with the company and don’t destroy our lives.”
“Move your business out of Berkeley, move to Sacramento,” a few community members called out from their seats.
Christiana Chan, the company’s environmental engineer, said that a new carbon absorption system had been installed at Plant 3 in 2006.
“A series of complaints were made when the company was not operating,” she said, referring to odor complaints made by community members to the air district.
Maio said that she had introduced the item on the council agenda as odor complaints had increased over the last three or four years.
“In spite of the absorption system at Plant 3 the complaints are still coming,” she said. “I have no intention of taking away anyone’s job but we need a balanced approach. The company has had some lay-offs but that is not what I intended.”
“I am very angry that Pacific Steel said it lost 30 jobs because of this,” said Mayor Tom Bates. “That is so much B.S.”
Councilmember Kriss Worthington called the council agenda item “fatally flawed.”
“I do respect the intention and effort to get attention, but the report is not based on any facts,” he said.
Bates criticized Worthington for his comment.
“Mr. Worthington, you have two of the most outrageous things in agenda items 16 and 17,” he said, referring to Worthington’s proposal to proclaim February 2008 as Freedom to Marry month in Berkeley and a recommendation to send a letter to Canadian officials requesting sanctuary for U.S. war resistors respectively.
“For you to say we cannot have this on the agenda is outrageous,” Bates said.
Worthington condemned what he said was “very anti-neighborly” behavior on council’s part.
“The hundreds who are here for the item are standing outside,” he said. “That is so disrespectful. This is not a way to treat the public.”
Maio said that Pacific Steel had been informed Friday that the item would be pulled off the council agenda.
“And they still showed up,” she said.
“We should not blame the public for coming here,” Worthington said to applause from the workers. “This is what democracy looks like.”
Pacific Steel recently submitted an odor- control plan to the air district which is currently awaiting approval.
Ye Lian Li, who immigrated from Thailand to the United States 22 years ago, thanked Pacific Steel for taking care of its workers.
“Pacific Steel gave me a chance to learn English,” she said. “My children went to college because of it. If I lose my job, I won’t be able to pay my mortgage. Pacific Steel is our life.”
Workers in hard hats who worked directly with the foundry’s air system testified about the company’s efforts to improve the environment.
Paul Cox, who lives down the street from Pacific Steel, testified that odor from the plant has reduced over the years.
“It used to stink more before,” he said. “But it seldom does now ... We need to work hard to keep those blue-collar jobs in Berkeley.”
LA Wood, who tested air samples taken near the foundry as part of the West Berkeley Community Monitoring Project last year, said that community did not want Pacific Steel to leave Berkeley.
“This is not about driving the workers out,” he told the Council, “It’s about odor abatement.”