-- The sound system along Independence Mall, just two blocks from the Liberty Bell, blared Philadelphia's version of the national anthem -- the theme song from "Rocky." Half a dozen mint-green-polo-shirted U.S. Mint employees ran a new flag up the pole usually reserved for the Stars and Stripes, while about 400 of their co-workers cheered wildly.
It was a revolution of sorts -- a rare moment when government workers and their bosses stood together and congratulated each other for their cooperation.
Only three years ago, the Mint, which produces $50 million in coins a day, was shut down by Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore for six weeks, the most drastic of efforts to clear 139 violations there uncovered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 2002. Mostly embarrassed that a government facility would have so many violations, Mint management and unions together worked out plans to fix all violations and ramp up awareness of safety in what is arguably the largest factory left in downtown Philadelphia.
Monday, OSHA awarded the Mint its highest honor, the Voluntary Protection Program Star status flag, which those mint-shirted employees raised only inches from where the Mint's patron saint, Ben Franklin -- he of "penny saved, penny earned" wisdom -- is buried.
Jeff Williams, a former 34-year Mint employee and the national district vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees union representing most of the Mint's 560 employees in Philadelphia, said persistent complaints and letter-writing by the workers finally nudged management to come together with the union after the OSHA visit.
"Employees were just fearful for their health. It wasn't any one thing, but a lot of little things, but eventually they decided to do the right thing and I think we have one of the safest factories in the country," Williams said.
One of the chief violations was exposed asbestos. Williams noted that the current Mint -- there has been one in Philadelphia since 1792 -- was built during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, when asbestos in buildings was prevalent. But there was also a need to be more careful in the use and storage of chemicals in the coinage process, to have more safety features for the huge coin-stamping machines and to upgrade the gear that employees wear on the factory floor and other smaller items.
"We put a lid on a lot of these things, and I think people are really happy about the way it turned out," said Tom O'Brien, who commutes across the Delaware River from Runnemede, N.J., to the Mint for his maintenance department job. He was wearing his favorite Phillies shirt, as most employees dressed casual for the celebration.
The Mint was again closed for the day Monday, and the gift shop was filled with buffet lines for workers.
The Philadelphia Mint, the largest in the world and one of two active government mints -- the other being in Denver -- is a 1960s-style three-story building in Philadelphia's historic district.
Self-guided tours were re-started only this spring, having been cut off after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The tours look down through bulletproof glass on the Mint floor -- visitors get to see varieties of normal coins and some special medals stamped out, washed and checked for flaws. These days stampers are putting out the commemorative Oregon quarter, which should be released to the public later this summer.
Safety-awareness banners and posters now dot the factory floor, which the day's top government celebrity, Arnie Havens, acting deputy secretary of the treasury, toured, looking at bins holding $40,000 in pennies.
"It's important to remember that this is a factory, not just another government office building, so safety is an enormous issue," Havens said. "I want employees to want to come to work here, to be proud of working for the Mint. I'm guessing it wasn't that way before, but this shows extraordinary commitment at a time when trust between labor and management isn't always there."