The Ford-Rouge Blast Was Corporate Cost-Cutting to Blame?

Topped by eight large smokestacks, the power house dominates any view of Ford's huge Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. When an explosion followed by fire ripped through the power house on February 1, the results were disastrous.

Power house boilers provide steam and electricity to run a steel mill, a stamping plant, an assembly plant, a tool and die shop, a glass plant, a frame plant, and an engine plant on the 1,100-acre complex.

Normally, 70 or 80 people staff the power house. The blast killed four and injured 27 more. Fifteen remain in the hospital, many of them with severe burns.

Immediately after the explosion, UAW Local 600, which represents workers in the complex, provided a gathering place, hotline information, counseling, and fresh clothing. The local hosted a blood drive for burn victims; nearly 1,000 people--mostly Local 600 members--donated, some waiting in line five or six hours for the privilege.

Ford scrambled to get alternative power to re-start production, bringing in generators and outside power, but it was a week before Ford's full operations resumed.

DAMAGE CONTROL

On February 5, a state inspector said boiler number six exploded due to a gas build-up in the fire box. The real question, though, is whether the underlying cause was just a random "act of God," or corporate neglect of maintenance and safety procedures.

Ford says it’s too early to determine the cause of the blast, though one millwright questioned whether alarms were maintained properly.

William Clay Ford, Jr., 42 years old and recently named Ford Chairman, called February 1 "the worst day of my life." He said everyone at Ford is "family."

Many workers were impressed that Ford showed up at the plant, hospitals, and a deceased worker’s home. The company has been largely successful in diverting criticism, saying, "The power house is a well-oiled machine."

UAW Local 600 President Jerry Sullivan initially seemed to question whether Ford provided adequate maintenance resources, telling reporters, "It’s a very dangerous place to work." Sullivan listed hazardous power sources and added, "You have to have tip-top maintenance to keep it going."

Later, Sullivan seemed to let Ford off the hook. "Ford was maintaining it properly, but it was a very old building," he said. This bolstered site manager Art Janes’s claim: "The UAW understands that things like this happen and we are family."

The power house, though, does have a history. Workers were burned in a 1986 incident. A 1989 explosion released asbestos, flooded tunnels, and killed two subcontract workers. In 1996 a power house worker’s safety complaints about a turbine explosion led to state safety citations and fines.

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A worker at the glass plant said that last August a power house substation caused a fire in the glass plant.

A journeyman boiler operator, retired after more than 40 years, remembers "time-study men cutting jobs in the power house." He describes a valve removed for maintenance while supervision "thought the water seal would hold." The resulting explosion into a locker room would have roasted workers had it occurred 20 minutes earlier.

COST-CUTTING AS "JOB ONE"

Ford is conducting a multi-billion dollar cost-cutting campaign. In a profitable period, jobs are eliminated and maintenance overtime severely cut. This endangers even machinery, but has pleased Wall Street. It helped Ford buy Volvo's auto operations for $6.5 billion without seriously diminishing the company’s $24 billion cash reserves.

Workers point to Ford's failure to repair even the Miller Road bridge to the Rouge since it collapsed in a train accident last August. This delayed some emergency vehicle response to the explosion.

And there is a special reason to question power house maintenance funding. The power house was to be replaced anyway by a new Consumers Power plant under construction nearby.

Injured workers are frequently accused of violating safety rules that upper management ignored for cost reasons. The spotlight on this explosion, however, could make a cover-up difficult. Angry workers and a few independent-minded reporters are questioning the power house maintenance history.

Ford is chopping up its empire, through outsourcing, subcontracting, plant sales, spin-offs, joint ventures. Some "family" that puts its "children" up for sale!

Ford is counting on products and services being cheaper once they are outsourced (but still largely under Ford’s control). Any piece of today’s capital can be outsourced or spun-off tomorrow. This cuts any long-term commitment to anything beyond next quarter's profits.

PUT FORD ON TRIAL?

The UAW should hold its own investigation. It should promise workers protection against company retaliation, call dozens of rank and file workers to testify about Ford’s safety record, and use that testimony to popularize strikeable demands before and during the 1999 contract negotiations.

Confronted with prosperous auto companies unwilling to pay decent wages and benefits, the UAW's Walter Reuther used to demand that the companies "open the books." The UAW needs to resurrect that demand, not only on finances, but on all company records, including safety, engineering, and management decision-making. Our working lives and very survival are at stake.

Ron Lare works at the Ford Rouge plant. He is a member of UAW Local 600 and a member of the UAW New Directions caucus.