On Monday, March 9, the last day before a six-month work stoppage at Cemex Cement Plant in Davenport, there wasn't much to do--the 115 workers who've been temporarily laid off came in at the regular time to sign for their final paychecks and then went home.
The last day of actual work was Friday, March 6. Even then there wasn't much to do. The men had time to gather in the machine repair shop, dressed in their neon orange safety vests and protective glasses, for a farewell lunch of fish tacos fried in an evil-colored vat of oil and ice cream cake.
"We're kind of done today," said one worker, tipped back in a chair at a long table covered with half-finished plates, chip bags and hard hats. "Mostly everyone is picking up their tools."
"Before, everyone was joking around," said Harvey Escobar, an employee with an 11-year tenure. "This week, everybody's been quiet."
The sentiment drew loud laughs and jeers from everyone around him. Though it's easy to draw small groups into tense conversation about their concerns over the layoffs, the roomful of 30-odd workers maintained an overall jocular mood.
"Laughing is a good way of hiding if you can't change it," said employee Robert Shean.
Asked if any of the men gathered were part of the 15-member skeleton crew remaining in place for the next six months, someone pointed to Mark Della Santina, shouting, "He's the one skeleton!" and "Do you feel guilty?" Della Santina smiled and stuck his hands in his pockets.
"He's been having things mysteriously fall on him," joked International Association of Machinists union representative and 23-year Cemex veteran Stan Meidinger.
Della Santina, the lone maintenance worker on the skeleton crew, said he was notified three weeks prior that his job was safe. He said that though the crew was selected based on seniority, he hadn't necessarily known he would be chosen. "It's bittersweet. These are all my friends," he said. "It's hard to see them get laid off." Another skeleton crew member, Curtis Blue, said that his job description was definitely expanding. "Anything from loading the belt to cutting the grass," he said.
Cemex spokeswoman Jennifer Borgen said that not much has changed in the plant's outlook. "The skeleton crew will be doing things like maintaining the plant, so it's ready to go when the economy and demand bounces back," she said. "You've got to keep it in tiptop shape. The six-month timeline hasn't changed." She added that some salaried workers were offered transfers, though several turned down offers that would have shipped them as far away as Pennsylvania or Texas.
The workers say that after weeks of hammering out details in their contracts they've never had to look at before, they'll leave with one year's worth of health care coverage and a guaranteed "call back" when (or if) the plant reopens, with their seniority intact. If the plant shuts down for good, they'll be given small severance packages.
Most of the last-meal attendees said they'll be relying on unemployment and hoping for good luck. And though they are hoping to come back, many don't have the nicest things to say about Cemex. They blame their job losses on the ruthless grind of the corporate machine. The older workers remember back when the company was smaller, and gatherings like the lunch used to be more commonplace.
"This used to be a family. You had brothers, fathers, cousins--it was a close-knit group," said Meidinger. "You could work here your whole life, it was so stable."
As the men trickled out of the machine room and back to work, Meidinger poked around among the garbage and wrappers. "I can't find my hard hat," he said.
"Uh-oh," someone goaded.
"What are they going to do, fire me?" Meidinger said.
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He headed for the control room in the blinding high-noon sunlight, past a giant sign that read SANTA CRUZ PORTLAND CEMENT. Though there was an audible rumbling all around, he said it's terribly quiet compared to the good years.
"Sometimes trucks were lined up all up the hill," he said, pointing to an empty gravel road that leads to the cement silos. "There were 150 trucks on a normal day. Now you can see it's like a ghost town." Up in the control room, a manager bound for retirement watched a camera shot of a giant mill grinding clinker. "I'm going to empty this bin and it's down," he said. Most of the rest of the equipment, like the kiln and the conveyor belt, was already quiet. Pointing at the monitor, Meidinger said, "That's the last turning mill you may ever see at this plant."
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