Workers on strike against Pacific Steel. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

About 470 workers at the Pacific Steel Casting plant went on strike around midnight Monday to protest what they characterized as unfair take-backs by the foundry’s management.

After talks broke down between the owners of Pacific Steel and representatives from Local 164B of the Glass, Molders, and Pottery Union, scores of workers set up pickets in front of the company’s plants on Second Street near Gilman and at a warehouse on Fifth Street.

“We are on strike as of today,” said Carlos Costa, the local rep for the GMP union. “The company gave us a proposition and it was a really bad proposition. The vote was 99 to 1 to reject the proposition and 99 to 1 to go on strike.”

The strikers are protesting over proposed new health care policies. Photo: Mimi Vitetta

Acosta said the company wants its workers to pay a large percentage of their health care costs. Currently, workers do not pay for their health plans but pay for doctors’ visits and prescriptions.  Pacific Steel wants its employees to pay about $1.85 an hour for health coverage. Since the average employee makes about $18 an hour, that is effectively a 10% wage cut, said Costa.

“The company is getting to the point where they are taking too much away from us and not considering us,” said Fred Taylor, who has worked for Pacific Steel for 10 years, most recently doing maintenance in Plant 3.  “There are some guys who work ten to twelve hour days seven days a week. The company unfortunately doesn’t take that kind of loyalty into consideration.”

Elisabeth Jewel, a spokeswoman for the company, declined to comment on the situation.

Pacific Steel Casting company was founded by the Genger family in 1934 and is still owned by descendants of Richard Genger and his son-in-law, Robert Desol.  The company, the third largest foundry in the United States, makes steel parts for trucks, as well as custom molds for other industries. Many members of the workforce have worked at the company for more than 30 years. It is one of the last remaining industries with high-paying jobs in Berkeley.

Throughout the years, nearby residents have complained about noxious odors emanating from the plant. The company has been sued and fined numerous times for emissions, but has spent millions of dollars in recent years to upgrade the three plants.

The tenor of the strike was friendly. There were no bullhorns, and the strikers wandered back and forth good-naturedly in front of the plant.

Truck with flat tire. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

There was one minor act of vandalism, however. Someone let the air out of the tire of a large truck trying to leave the warehouse, prompting Berkeley police to come to Fifth Street shortly before noon.

“They didn’t want this truck to pull out from this third party warehouse,” said Lt. Andrew Greenwood of the Berkeley Police Department. “The air has been let out of the tires so it is relatively immobilized.”

A number of the strikers said the environment of the plant had changed ever since  Robert Delsol died in 2008. One of his daughters, Katie Delsol, took over as executive director and brought in Chuck Bridges, a turn-around specialist, as the chief financial officer. Those changes coincided with the economic decline and a drop-off in orders. Some workers feel the company has lost its family feeling and is becoming increasingly corporate.

Costa, who estimated that the company will lose $2 million each day of the strike, said workers will picket the plants 24 hours a day until the two sides agree on a new contract.

“We are trying to send a message to the company that they guys are here to protect their jobs,” said Costa.

Update:The original version of this story misspelled Carlos Costa’s name as Carols Acosta.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...