Steel company sued by former employee

Kevin Hahn/Staff
Roberto Rodriguez formerly worked at Pacific Steel.

Berkeley resident Roberto Rodriguez remembers his first day of work at Pacific Steel Casting Company — a landscape of heavy machinery, loud noises and flying embers.

The company superintendent took him to the front gate and said, “Look, Bobby, it’s a hell in there.” At the time, Rodriguez was 19 years old.

More than 45 years later, a retired Rodriguez wears a Che Guevara hat over his tied-back hair, while calmly championing his cause — an estimated $45 million lawsuit against his former employer on behalf of approximately 1,000 former and present workers.

The class action lawsuit — filed in Alameda County Superior Court Dec. 23 and amended Dec. 30 — seeks financial restitution for unpaid worker wages resulting from the management’s alleged failure to provide mannerly mealtime and rest periods, as well as for a lack of rest shelters and timely payment for terminated employees.

“The company plans to defend itself vigorously,” said Elisabeth Jewel, Pacific Steel’s spokesperson. “The claims are absolutely baseless.”

On Monday, the company moved the case to the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, according to Timothy Rumberger, Rodriguez’s lawyer.

Jewel said that she cannot comment on the lawsuit, as it is pending litigation.

Founded in 1934, Berkeley-based Pacific Steel Casting Company is the fourth-largest surviving steel foundry in the country, employing about 600 workers, according to Jewel.

The company has been dealing with a different controversy since last February when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security mandated that the company check the employment eligibility of its workers through an I-9 audit. The audit, which began in October and ended a few weeks ago, resulted in the firing and replacing of 200 undocumented workers who could not produce social security numbers.

Rodriguez is not an illegal immigrant, and his lawsuit does not specifically address undocumented workers at Pacific Steel. However, he said these recent events collided fortuitously with his lawsuit, and that many of these newly-fired employees have come to meetings about the lawsuit.

Rodriguez said he thought about quitting his job at the company many times over the years but continued to support his four kids. He wants compensation for his suffering from hearing loss, a painful work accident and recent heart surgery — all of which he blames on the company’s allegedly toxic environment.

“I’m talking to you by miracle,” he said, gesturing to a nine-inch gash on his chest. “When you work there, you bring all the dust, the chemicals, the smoke, the noise … into your body.”

But, Ignacio De La Fuente, international vice president of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union that represents the company’s workers, is opposed to Rodriguez’s claims, and maintains that the union’s collective bargaining agreement protects worker’s hourly pay, overtime pay and Rodriguez’s other grievances.

“(It’s) not as simple as this claim … about people not getting paid for lunchtime,” he said. “People work different hours, different days of the week — that’s the only way that this company can function and continue to provide.”

Furthermore, De La Fuente said heavy manufacturing companies face a great deal of difficulty operating under California Environmental laws.

“(Rumberger) has done a lot, in my opinion, to shut down this company,” De La Fuente said, citing Rumberger’s previous lawsuit against the company for environmental violations. “In this situation, it’s not the companies’ fault.”

Taking a brief hiatus at 6:00 p.m., a large group of workers in yellow helmet hats gather around a food truck. They sit on nearby steps to eat their dinner, saying things like, “work is just work.”

Victor Acosta, a newly-hired worker and Richmond resident, said this job means a lot to people like him who have families and kids.

“Yes, it is hard work compared to other jobs,” he said. “(It’s) way harder than working in a coffee shop, but it pays well.”

But for Rodriguez, who retired in 2010, staying home and taking care of his health is his only job. Exercise well, eat good food and rest — these are the doctor’s orders, he said.

Rodriguez hopes he will soon get the justice he thinks he deserves. And though there are no set dates for the next steps in the litigation, Rumbuger said in an email he thinks it would be best if the case were resolved quickly.

“I have a great hope that we’re going to win,” Rodriguez said, clutching his heart.

Weiru Fang covers Berkeley communities.