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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

Workers are stunned by Cemex shutdown, Curtis Reliford gears up for another mission to Katrinaland and Inauguration Day promises to be one long party.

Stunning Cemex Closure

Several weeks ago at a meeting about chromium-6 in the Santa Cruz County Supervisors' chambers, Mark Lobue, a quarry foreman at Cemex in Davenport, told Nūz the economy was preventing spooked Cemex workers from leaving the troubled cement plant. "I don't think any of us can look for a job right now," he said.

Fast forward to last Thursday, Jan. 8, when worry over carcinogens and chemical test results fell away under a harsh new reality: Cemex will be closing for a minimum of six months, and workers will be out of a paycheck for at least that long.

A mere hour after his shift ended, and about six hours after he and 124 of his fellow employees were notified, Lobue summed his feelings up bluntly. "Hollow," he said. " It hasn't really settled in yet."

The shock seems to have come from the swiftness with which the ax fell. Even nighttime shift employees like Tina Cutter hadn't heard a whisper of it when they got off at 2am; they found out the next morning like everyone else. "I was still asleep," said Cutter. "My boss called and left me a message. She said she had a paper for me."

The paper, distributed at around 10am on Thursday, was a letter officially beginning the 60-day countdown before normal operations grind to a halt. The last day of work will be March 9. "I think everybody's jaw hit the ground," said Lobue.

According to International Association of Machinists union representative Stan Meidinger, the management hadn't been told until very early that morning, and the unions found out only about an hour after them. "It was just a sudden move," he said. He added that the plant had the raw materials for a new batch of cement, a sign he interpreted as meaning business was continuing as usual. "They've just completely pulled the rug out from that."

Though Cemex's loss of profits was not a secret, the abrupt nature of the decision from headquarters in Houston was a shock even to vice president Satish Sheth, who only days before had sat patiently through another chromium-6 meeting at Davenport Pacific School, answering questions with no ostensible knowledge that production would cease.

Cemex spokeswoman Jennifer Borgen explains the closure as a simple matter of supply and demand in keeping with the real estate crash. "We're constantly looking to our sources to see what the demand will be," she said last week. "The sources are telling us now the demand will continue to fall." One of those sources, the California Building Industry Association, reported on Jan. 3 that the number of new homes built in 2008 was about the same as in 1954, and will continue to fall in 2009. The number of new building permits decreased about 43 percent from 2007.

Over the next two months, the conditions of each individual layoff will be worked out, and though a skeleton crew and some transferred salary employees will still have a job on March 10, the vast majority of hourly workers will be temporarily dismissed. The workers said they do not expect any kind of severance pay and will be filing for unemployment. Average weekly benefits in California in November were $307 per week. One worker said he's planning to sell his motorcycle; another said she's worried about her many co-workers expecting new babies.

On Monday, Meidinger reported unions were slogging through the fine print of their contracts to try to figure out what their members can expect, and said that though reality is beginning to sink in, acceptance is not exactly a relief. "It's not a dream, it's reality," he says. "People are losing sleep at night."

The Power to Give

If you ask Curtis Reliford what makes people want to donate time and money to a 3-year-old cause like Hurricane Katrina relief, he'll smile and say, "Not much."

Cash donations this holiday season have been sparser than last year, but that doesn't stop Reliford, 50, from waking up every day, putting on his red long-sleeved shirt, blue overalls and tan wide-brimmed hat and asking folks anyway. As founder of the grassroots charity organization Follow Your Heart Action Network, Reliford, who also works as a landscaper, routinely loads up his colorful trailer with donated building and living supplies and trucks it 2,200 miles to Louisiana. Once there, he hands the items out to building crews in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, to homeless people in Shreveport and to ex-FEMA-trailer tenants in Baton Rouge. Recipients are always grateful, but Reliford explains that some of the people who benefit most from his 13-and-counting trips are those who go along for the ride.

"I keep going for a lot of reasons," he says on a brisk winter morning on Pacific Avenue. "But one big reason is people like the homeless guy I took with me who would come up and be like, 'Hey Curt! I got a year clean since the trip,' or the gangbanger who just told me, 'Hey Curt! I'm back in school.'"

Reliford came to Santa Cruz in 1986 after fleeing a life of drugs and violence. The personification of manners and modesty today, he tells of a former life of addiction that led to his being stabbed, shot and thrown out of a seven-story building.

But while the move to California allowed him to escape the downward spiral of drugs and crime (Reliford proudly describes his 23 years clean and sober), Hurricane Katrina provided him with a renewed sense of purpose. When the storm struck, Reliford had just finished a visit to his sister and two nieces and had been gone a week; they stayed behind, and for those two long months he never heard a word. When he finally heard back from them, he was relieved. He was also angry.

"I thought they were dead. I imagined their faces and I was angry. Angry at how they were treating people down there," he says "Eventually I decided to turn that anger into something positive. And that's what my trailer says. It's painted with my story and what's important to me. It's the best of me."

CURTIS RELIFORD hosts a Day of Peace open-mic on Monday, Jan. 19, noon-7pm at Vets Hall, 846 Front St., Santa Cruz. To participate, or to donate or volunteer for trips, call 831.246.4240 or visit The next trip to Louisiana is planned for March 1.

Stations of the Inauguration

Where will you be when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America? Or perhaps the question is; where will you be when George W. Bush finishes his last day as the 43rd president of the United States of America?

Nūz will be attempting to break the drunken high-five record previously set on Election Night. But for everyone else there are plenty of options for ushering in the new commander-in-chief.

The hope train starts rolling three days early with the Rock for Barack party Saturday, Jan. 17, at Elks Lodge (150 Jewell St., Santa Cruz; 831.423.8240). Put on by the Democratic Central Committee, the Obama Santa Cruz and the Democratic Women's Club of Santa Cruz and dubbed the "first inaugural ball on the west coast," the donkey dance party kicks off at 7pm and features the supersized rock of Extra Large.

On Inauguration Day itself (that's Tuesday, Jan. 20, if you've been hiding in a cave), the local Dems kick off the wildest bagel buffet breakfast ever held at the just-opened Democratic Headquarters (740 Front St, Suite 165, Santa Cruz; 831.335.4765). With red, white and blue bagels, they've got blueberries and whatever else makes red and white ones too.

The party gets going in earnest with the Women's International League for Peace & Freedom gathering at the County Courthouse (701 Ocean St., Santa Cruz) for a Swearing-In of the People from 2:30 to 3:15pm; bring a homemade sign for the parade through downtown Santa Cruz, as well as your finest puppeteering skills; volunteers are needed to help the 20-foot Statue of Liberty puppet get her point across to the huddled masses during the proceedings (call 831.426.2292 for info on facilitating Lady Liberty's moves). The parade ends with a celebration and street party at the post office and town clock, 4-5:30pm or as long as the party lasts.

Later that night the Blue Lagoon (923 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.423.7117) leads the madness with an extended happy hour beginning at 4pm with $3.50 well drinks before getting even happier at 9pm, when the price drops to $2. Rosie McCann's Irish Pub & Restaurant (1220 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz; 831.426.9930) is also joining in on the fun with food and drink specials including heart-murmuring vodka Red Bull discounts, karaoke and door prizes. At Moe's Alley (1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz; 831.479.1854) local favorites 300 Pounds will be playing an Obama-inspired set of their patented, hip-hop, funk and ska mishmash with plenty of drink specials, all for only $5 in advance and $8 at the door. Wherever you end up on Inauguration Day, let's hope we all end up in a better place in the coming years.

Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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