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May 14, 2004

Bush's overtime pay plan bludgeoned again, but they haven't quite killed the beast

The Gangbox Assorted News and Notes

From B-24s to GM transmissions, versatile Willow Run plant thrives

'Will-It Run?' Absolutely

Getting a whiff of welding fumes…Jury verdict opens doors for personal injury cases

Fume hazards are real - but gaps in research need closure

News Briefs


Bush's overtime pay plan bludgeoned again, but they haven't quite killed the beast

WASHINGTON - In a remarkable turn of events and a rare, major victory for organized labor, the U.S. Senate voted on May 4 to block implementation of President Bush's plan to deny overtime pay to hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers.

A handful of Republicans voting with Democrats was sufficient to pass the measure, 52-47. The legislation now goes to the U.S. House, where it faces another Republican majority that could be lobbied into making a similar vote, which would finally kill Bush's new rules. If the House doesn't pass the measure, the rules will be written into federal Department of Labor guidelines in August.

"This was a very encouraging vote - a great victory for American workers and families," said Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin, the amendment's chief sponsor. "I think it's a clear message to the administration."

In pushing for the new rules, Bush has claimed that he wants to update federal labor law, which has language on the books that dates to the 1930s. Organized labor and Democrats have maintained that while making those updates, the president is taking the opportunity to deny overtime pay to hundreds of thousands of working Americans.

More than 80,000 public comments that flooded into the White House and Congress earlier this year helped water down the final rules. Originally, Bush's proposal would have denied overtime to up to eight million American workers earning between $25,000 and $60,000 per year, forcing them to accept compensatory time off instead.

Bush's final rules guarantee overtime to workers earning less than $23,660 per year. But those workers earning more than $100,000 per year - the vast majority white collar - would lose overtime protections. In between those salary ranges, there are still numerous gray areas about which occupations could lose access to overtime pay, although blue collar jobs are still not expected to be on the hit list. Workers who toil under collective bargaining pacts are not affected by the rules.

Last year, both the Senate and the House voted to kill the overtime rules, but Bush did a legislative end-around and put the rules back into place. Bush also managed to quash an attempt earlier this year in both houses that would have choked off funding for the new rules.

"The vote illustrated continued nervousness in (the Republican Party) about the wage issue," the Wall Street Journal reported. "Mr. Bush still has the power to implement the overtime rules as planned in August. But yesterday's Senate outcome adds to the pressure on the House to join in the opposition and all but insures repeated skirmishes through the November elections."

Said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota): "We have said from the beginning that nobody should be adversely affected by the changes made in the Department of Labor on overtime - nobody should be."


The Gangbox Assorted News and Notes

Highway spending. Negotiations are under way to determine how much money the federal government will spend on the nation's transportation infrastructure from 2004-2009.

According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), the Bush Administration wants to spend $206 billion (or 10.7 percent decline with inflation taken into account). The House is proposing to spend $221.9 billion (which would amount to 4.2 percent increase in real spending) and the Senate wants to spend $238 billion (which is an 18.6 percent increase in real spending).

Those amounts represent construction spending only; other, higher amounts previously approved by the House and Senate and reported here included spending for non-construction items.

Negotiations are underway in Congress to determine how to divvy up the taxpayer dollars. Michigan could be a major loser in highway funding if the higher proposed amount in the Senate isn't adopted.

Michigan worker fatalities drop. As workers and public health professionals around the country paid tribute to colleagues who died on the job on Workers Memorial Day, a report released last month shows that the number of Michigan workers killed in job-related injuries decreased in 2002, the last year complete statistics were available.

The report, compiled by Michigan Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (MIFACE), a joint program of Michigan State University and Wayne State University, shows that 151 Michigan workers died from on-the-job injuries in 2002, down from 174 in 2001 and 156 in 2000. Preliminary estimates indicate 151 Michigan workers also died in 2003 from job-related injuries.

The report is released in conjunction with Workers Memorial Day on April 28. According to MIFACE, more than 90 percent of Michigan workers killed on the job were males. The youngest death was that of a 13-year-old boy killed after becoming entangled in a farming tractor. The oldest was an 85-year-old owner of a car dealership who died when a car he was moving to another part of his parking lot hit a tree.

The most dangerous profession in 2002 was construction, as more than 26 percent of the deaths occurred in that field. Sixteen percent of the deaths occurred in manufacturing, 14 percent in farming and 13 percent in retail trade.

Construction fatalities studied. An analysis of U.S. construction fatalities by the University of Tennessee released last month found that falls from roofs or structures accounted for more than 20 percent of construction deaths.

The study separated those types of falls into two categories. The third most common cause of construction fatality was being crushed or run over by construction equipment, followed by electric shock, then lifting operations.

The study, based on 2002 statistics, found that there were more fatalities in construction industry than in any other industry.

The statistics that were compiled were in line with historic numbers compiled by OSHA.

Raise the flags. Nearly 18,000 Michigan contractors, excavators and landscapers received a mailing this spring that promotes safe digging and offers them a chance to win tickets to see the Detroit Red Wings.

Individual trades workers won't get the chance to win tickets, but it's not a bad time to remind everyone to dig carefully this construction season. The mailing, supported by Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, MISS DIG System, Inc. and the Michigan Damage Prevention Board, reminds contractors to follow specific safe digging guidelines:

  1. Call MISS DIG at (800) 482-7171. MISS DIG is the service created by Michigan utilities to coordinate staking requests.
  2. Wait at least three business days to give local utilities time to "raise the flags" over their underground lines.
  3. Dig by hand to expose underground utility lines before using power equipment.
  4. Respect the flags and be aware of underground facilities whenever working in their vicinity.

Steve Kindschy, a MISS DIG board member and manager of gas operations services for Consumers Energy, said the "Raise The Flags" campaign fills an important need in Michigan's contractor/excavator community. "Every year, there are over 10,000 dig-in damage incidents in Michigan that cause loss of utility services, injuries and even death," Kindschy said. "This communications effort helps assure the safety of workers and the general public and reduces the damage caused to buried utility lines.



From B-24s to GM transmissions, versatile Willow Run plant thrives

By Marty Mulcahy

YPSILANTI - Formerly the linchpin of Michigan's deserved reputation as the "Arsenal of Democracy," where 8,684 B-24 Liberator bombers were built during World War II, the Willow Run assembly plant has over the years been reformatted and re-tooled for the building of a number of automotive products.

The latest transformation of the plant, a $300 million venture by its owner, General Motors, will facilitate production of a new six-speed, rear-wheel automatic transmission. The project will include facility renovation, new machinery, equipment and tooling. Renovation work by general contractor Walbridge-Aldinger and the building trades began last year and will be complete in 2005.

The new Hydramatic transmission will be used in future GM cars and trucks beginning in 2006. The new product will preserve at least 577 jobs at the plant, which employs about 4,000 hourly and 400 salaried employees, GM said in a statement. Walbridge referred questions about current construction activity at the plant to GM personnel, who declined to comment.

The Willow Run plant was designated a State Historic Site in 1980. The concept for the 2.5 million-square-foot plant was started with a simple sketch on some hotel stationary in 1940 by a Ford Motor Co. vice president, at the direction of his boss, Henry Ford. President Franklin Roosevelt had approached captains of industry about the potential for creating new operations or transforming existing facilities for war materiel production. Roosevelt could feel the winds of war blowing and realized that the U.S. was woefully unprepared for making armaments.

"It is a remarkable plant for a number of reasons," said Wayne State University Professor of History Charles Hyde. "There are so few World War II-era production plants still in service, and I think it's safe to say that aren't any plants that have as much lore and history attached to them as Willow Run."

Douglas Brinkley, a University of New Orleans history professor and author of Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company and a Century of Progress, said "other U.S. wartime plants were significant, but what happened at Willow Run was deemed a miracle. The idea that an auto manufacturer could stop making cars and start making planes at the rate they were making them became a perfect symbol of American industrial might. Willow Run became a name to inspire America's fighting men and women."

Architect Albert Kahn designed the Willow Run plant for Ford, which was an audacious and ambitious project by any measure. The assembly plant would be the largest in the world at the time, at more than a half-mile long and a quarter-mile wide. A system with 136 conveyors that would deliver parts where they needed to go in the building had to be designed for a complex, four-engine bomber for a company whose only experience was building cars. A road (I-94) had to be constructed for to get workers to the site.

The plant had to be built in a hurry - and it was. Construction started on the plant in April 1941 and was finished in September 1942. The next month, the first B-24 bombers built by Ford - with a mostly female workforce of "Rosie the Riveters" - were rolled off the assembly line and were flown to their destination from the runway.

According to Assembly Magazine, "More B-24s were built than any other combat aircraft in U.S. history. Several other plants churned out the airplane, including facilities in Fort Worth, TX, and San Diego. However, even under optimum conditions, those plants could only build one bomber a day." The Willow Run plant produced one bomber per hour by the end of 1943.

Aviator Charles Lindbergh, who served as a consultant on the Willow Run project, called the $47 million facility the "Grand Canyon of a mechanized world."

The B-24's bombed Germany day and night, halting fuel and armaments production, stopping the delivery of supplies, and eventually helping to win the war in Europe. With action in that theatre over and men and machines shifting to the war with Japan, the last B-24 bomber rolled off the assembly line on June 24, 1945.

After the war, production at Willow Run shifted to automotive manufacturing. The federal government actually owned the plant, and when Ford moved out the space was sold to the Kaiser-Frazer Motors Corp. That long-defunct company produced cars in the plant until it moved out in 1953.

GM, which had leased Willow Run space from Kaiser-Frazer, bought the facility in 1953 after a disastrous fire at the Livonia Transmission Plant. Only three months later, the Willow Run plant had been re-fit and retooled to make GM's Hydramatic transmissions. GM transmissions have been built at the plant ever since.

"In keeping with our mission of providing the world's best powertrains, this will be a great product for General Motors," said Homi Patel, GM vice president and general manager of manufacturing operations for GM Powertrain, in a statement about latest re-tooling at Willow Run. "We're looking forward to producing this transmission at the Willow Run site where management, union and employees are working together to make it a great success."

AN EIGHT-INCH AIR LINE to feed a new 30-ton chiller at the GM Willow Run Plant in Ypsilanti is readied for welding by Bob Oler and Dave Payment of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Local 190.

B-24 Liberator bombers move down the Willow Run plant's assembly line in February 1943. At its peak that year, the Ford plant employed 42,331 workers - and 3,000 were hired on a single day.
Photo courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University


'Will-It Run?' Absolutely

By Marty Mulcahy

The building trades have worked to renovate and upgrade at the Willow Run plant a number of times over the years, but its basic design and purpose haven't changed since it was built in 1942

Hardhats also work to renovate scores of auto assembly and supplier plants around Michigan, but few plants have the history associated with Willow Run. Following are a few nuggets of interest concerning the plant. The information is gleaned from Wayne State history professor Charles Hyde, Assembly Magazine, and other sources:

  • Albert Kahn, the plant's architect, preferred numerous windows and skylights in his plant designs, but not at Willow Run. The reason: The War Department feared the German air force would at some point be able to seize a refueling site in the North Atlantic, and thus be able to launch a long-range bomber that would be able to hit the plant at night.
  • With the World War II war machine cranking up, steel was in short supply, as was time to build plants. So instead of a requiring new and unique structural elements, Kahn designed the Willow Run plant to use steel that manufacturers had already made.
  • A persistent story that is "probably true," Hyde said, had Henry Ford installing an L-shaped bend in the B-24 assembly line, but not for any practical reason. The bend, complete with a turntable, allowed him to avoid extending the plant, on the border of Washtenaw County, into Wayne County. Ford wanted to avoid paying higher taxes to Wayne County.
  • For as long as possible, Ford also fought the federal government and sought to keep the tens of thousands of the plant's UAW members - who were also typically Democrats - from living around the Willow Run plant. Ford fought the construction of permanent housing, so dormitories and even tents provided shelter. Workers drove to work or were bussed in. "He didn't want Democrats tipping the balance of power in Washtenaw County," Hyde said.
  • Numerous "little people" were employed by Ford to build the B-24. They were better able to fit into tight spaces in wings and fuselages.
  • When the B-24s first came off the line, only about half of the first 107 bombers delivered were acceptable to the Army Air Corps, in good part because of the use of hard steel dies - rather than soft steel dies that were more conducive to change orders. The plant was dubbed "Will-It Run" - but later lost that nickname with a stellar quality record for the B-24s as time went on.

According to Assembly Magazine, "The B-24, also known as the 'Liberator' and the 'Flying Boxcar,' was credited with helping the United States and its Allies win the war. Four 1,200-hp Pratt & Whitney engines enabled the plane to fly long distances loaded with more than 8,000 pounds of bombs. The 30-ton plane could fly up to 300 miles an hour with a ceiling of 30,000 feet and a range of 3,000 miles. Because of these features, the B-24 was capable of high-altitude precision bombing at heights beyond the range of antiaircraft fire."

The late UAW President Walter Reuther said, "Like England's battles were won on the playing fields of Eton, America's were won on the assembly lines of Detroit."


Getting a whiff of welding fumes…Jury verdict opens doors for personal injury cases

By Marty Mulcahy

Will welding rod disease become the next asbestosis?

That's becoming a hot topic in the medical and legal communities, following an Illinois jury's verdict last fall that established a legal link between the inhalation of welding fumes and Parkinson's disease, a neurological disorder.

Medical research is turning up some unhealthy effects from welding fumes. Those findings, along with the Illinois case, have hit the radar of the lawyer community, and legal actions against welding material suppliers have mushroomed in recent months. The issue hit the pages of Forbes Magazine in February, which said, "Welding has the potential to be the next asbestos - meaning an avalanche of product liability suits and big fees (for lawyers) for years to come."

Dr. Michael Harbut is assistant professor of internal medicine at Wayne State University and co-founder of the Karmonos Cancer Foundation's Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. He has studied asbestosis cases for years and has seen the research on welding fumes.

"There's no doubt, people do get sick from welding fumes," Harbut said. "But it's important that people who feel they might have the disease see a neurologist or an occupational disease specialist for a diagnosis, before they see a lawyer.

"I have a pro-patient attitude, and it's completely appropriate for people who are afflicted to make sure that those who are poisoning others can't do it any more. But I'm particularly concerned that any legal action take place after the appropriate diagnosis and follow-up."

The renewed look at the effects of welding fumes sprung from a court case last October, when a jury in Illinois awarded a $1 million verdict to a man who said he developed Parkinson's disease after years of breathing fumes from welding.

According to lawyers in the case, the jury ruled that welding-rod manufacturers were responsible for failing to warn the 65-year-old plaintiff about potential health problems. The plaintiff said he used rods made and sold by major companies across the country. The companies argued that there has been no link established between welding fumes and Parkinson's.

The fallout from the case has been far-reaching. Shares fell 8 percent on a big British company that supplies industrial gases, BOC Group, which was a defendant in the Illinois case and in 80 similar pending cases. Two U.S. welding suppliers, Lincoln-Electric and Hobart Brothers, were also defendants in the Illinois case.

According to the Forbes article, the Illinois case changed the legal landscape for welding fume litigation. "Lawyers have been suing these manufacturers for 15 years or so, claiming their heated rods produce toxic manganese fumes that have given their clients Parkinson's disease or similarly debilitating neurological disorders. The cases were mostly tossed out - the medical link is sketchy so far," Forbes said. Then… "Jackpot! The victory sparked a flood of suits, attracting big-time class action lawyers."

An estimated 4,000 welding fume cases have been filed in state and federal courts. Business owners fear that this will turn into another expensive asbestosis situation, where corporations that have only partially been involved in welding rod manufacturing will get sued. Just like in tobacco and asbestosis cases, the justification for the lawsuits is that the companies knew their products harm workers, but didn't do anything about it.

"There's a large population that's been exposed, and I think we're talking aggregate damages way in excess of a billion dollars," said a Cleveland-based plaintiff attorney.

WELDING FUMES' effects on welders will be the subject of continuing medical studies.


Fume hazards are real - but gaps in research need closure

Welding is one of the most common tasks in the building trades. How concerned should construction workers be over welding fumes?

"Welding rod fumes have been a known health hazard for years," said Dr. Michael Harbut, assistant professor of internal medicine at Wayne State University. "Welding rod disease is real. But people panic. I've had guys in here for who think they're sick or that they have Parkinson's, but they don't have the symptoms."

In 2003, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) published what it called "the single most comprehensive review of scientific literature on health effects associated with welding." The article, 'Health Effects of Welding,' noted that past investigations have found bronchitis, airway irritation, and other respiratory illnesses in large numbers of welders.

"However, critical differences between the studies and a shortage of dose/response data make it difficult to compare results and confidently link given exposures with given effects," NIOSH said. The group has identified the research that's necessary to fill in those gaps, but those studies haven't been performed.

NIOSH said an estimated 400,000 men and women are employed in welding and related occupations in the U.S. "Some studies suggest that occupational exposures to welding fumes may pose the risk of serious respiratory, neurological, and reproductive effects," NIOSH said. "However, the available data generally are too limited to offer conclusive answers."

Still, NIOSH said welders "may also experience a variety of chronic respiratory problems, including bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, emphysema, pneumoconiosis (which refers to dust-related diseases), decreased lung capacity (and) silicosis."

One leading medical author on the subject, Barry S. Levy of Tufts University, who is immediate past president of the American Public Health Association, said manganese burned in the welding process "enters the body primarily via inhalation, can damage the nervous system and respiratory tract, as well as have other adverse effects. Among the neurologic effects is an irreversible Parkinsonian-like syndrome. An estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million people in the United States have Parkinson's disease, and physicians need to consider manganese exposure in its differential diagnosis."

The safety research arm of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, the Center to Protect Workers' Rights (CPWR), said the level of fume hazards depend on a number of variables, including: the welding method (such as MIG, TIG, or stick); the types of metals the welding rod is made of; the use of filler metals and base metals (such as mild steel and stainless steel); paints and other coatings on the metals being welded, and the use of proper ventilation.

The CPWR offered the following advice to welders, although there are few specifics on which metallic composition of welding rods are safer than others:

  • Your employer must train you about the risks and show you material safety data sheets about any of the chemicals involved in welding, if you ask.
  • OSHA says you must remove all paint and solvents before welding or torch cutting. Make sure all residues are removed.
  • Use the safest welding method for the job. Stick welding makes much less fume than flux core welding.
  • Use welding rods that produce a low fume - 90 percent of the fume can come from the rod. Welding guns that extract fumes can capture 95% of the fume.
  • In a confined space, follow all the OSHA confined-space rules - like air monitoring, not storing torches in the space, and ventilation.
  • Use local-exhaust ventilation to remove fumes and gases at their source in still air. Keep the exhaust hood opening 4-6 inches from the fume source.
  • Use air blowers to blow fumes away from you when you are outdoors and it's windy.
  • Keep your face far from the welding plume.
  • If the ventilation is not good, use a respirator. If respirators are used, OSHA says your employer must have a full respiratory protection program. This means proper selection and fitting of respirators, medical screening to be sure a worker can wear a respirator, and worker training.

The CPWR also offered this nugget: "OSHA has limits for exposure to metals, gases, and total fumes during welding, but these limits may not protect you enough, because they are out of date."


News Briefs

3 percent hike for U.S. construction
New U.S. construction starts in March increased 3 percent from the month before to a rate of $537.2 billion, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, an information clearinghouse which tracks building trends.

Gains were reported for nonresidential building and non-building construction (public works and utilities), while residential building eased from a robust February.

Construction activity experienced a mild loss of momentum for the first two months of 2004. "The construction industry has been supported for quite some time by the exceptional strength of single-family housing," said Robert A. Murray, vice president of economic affairs for McGraw-Hill Construction. "In March, single-family housing remained at a very high level, but it was other sectors that provided the upward push to total construction."

Murray said the increase for nonresidential construction "was not surprising" following that sector's sluggish performance beginning the year.

Overall, U.S. construction activity during the first three months of this year was up 7 percent compared to the same period a year ago.

Lawmakers need wage education
Federal legislation that would immediately release at least $50 billion in U.S. construction projects is being held up by Republicans lawmakers who don't want federal prevailing wage rules applied to the projects that would be constructed.

The Construction Labor Report described a conference held last month called the Campaign for Quality Construction, whose members include the National Sheetmetal and Air Conditioning Contractors Association (SMACNA), the National Electrical Contractors Association, the Mechanical Contractors Association and other labor-management groups.

Speakers at the conference explained that there are enormous misconceptions among lawmakers about the federal Davis-Bacon Act, which assures the payment of local prevailing wages to construction workers on federally funded projects. Prevailing wage laws help assure local construction wage levels aren't undermined by contractors who beat out legitimate contractors for bids by employing underpaid, under-skilled workers.

One association lobbyist snapped her fingers and said infrastructure bills would pass "just like that" without Davis-Bacon rules attached.

"You have a huge education job to do," a SMACNA lobbyist told contractors preparing to lobby representatives in Congress.

The two biggest misconceptions:

  • That prevailing wage means union-only. In fact, said the Construction Labor Report, about 70 percent of all prevailing wage jobs utilize nonunion or mixed union-nonunion workers.
  • That prevailing wage drive up the cost of construction. In fact, numerous studies have shown that prevailing wage has virtually no effect on a builder's bottom line.

Asbestos fund short from the get-go
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported last month that the current proposal to create a $124 billion trust fund to pay claimants injured by asbestos over the next 50 years would come up about $16 billion short.

The CBO report upholds arguments made by Democrats in Congress, who have argued for a larger pool of money to pay claimants.

Creation of the trust fund is still under debate in Congress.


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