Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds

The Power Plant Men and Women knew that a major downsizing was going to occur throughout the company on Friday, July 29, 1994.  The upper management had already experienced the preliminary stages of this particular downsizing since it started at the top.  Over a four month period that started with an early retirement, it worked its way down the ranks until the actual Power Plant Men at the plant in North Central Oklahoma were going to be downsized on that one day.

The people that had taken the early retirement (which was available for anyone 50 years and older) had already left a couple of months earlier.  Since the downsizing was being decided from the top down, we soon learned that our Plant Manager Ron Kilman would no longer be a Plant Manager.  He was too young to take the early retirement.  I believe he was 47 at the time.

The person taking Ron’s place was Bill Green, a guy that was old enough to take the early retirement, but decided to stay.  Bill was 53 years old at the time.  Perhaps he knew in advance that he had a secure position before the deadline to choose the early retirement.

The final week when the downsizing was going to take place, several things were happening that made the entire week seem surreal (this is a word that means — sort of weird and unnatural).  I was spending the week in the old Brown and Root building because we were busy training everyone at the plant about Confined Space Safety and the OSHA regulations that we had to follow.

We had to have all the OSHA training completed by August 1 in order to avoid the fines that OSHA had given us back in April (See the post:  “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“).  We had formed a confined space rescue team and taken the required Confined Space training (see the post “Finding and Defining Power Plant Confined Spaces“).  We were using the old training room in the old Brown and Root Building because we wanted it to be away from the plant area where the foremen wouldn’t be bothered while they were taking their class.

The first day of training, Ben Brandt the assistant plant manager was in the the class.  He was going to be a plant manager at another plant, I think it was the plant in Seminole county.

Seminole Power Plant at night outside of Konawa Oklahoma.  This picture was found at:  http://www.redbubble.com/people/harrietrn/works/1425122-seminole-power-plant

Seminole Power Plant at night outside of Konawa Oklahoma. This picture was found at: http://www.redbubble.com/people/harrietrn/works/1425122-seminole-power-plant

I could tell that Ben was not interested in being in the training, and given all that was going down that week, I could see why.  We would say something in the class about how you had to fill out your confined space permit and turn it in to the Control Room, and Ben would shake his head in disagreement as if he didn’t think that was ever going to happen….  Well, times were changing in more ways than one that week.

Tuesday afternoon was when things really began to get weird….  We knew that Friday would be the last day for a bunch of Power Plant Men, but we didn’t yet know who.  During the previous downsizing in 1987 and 1988, we at least knew who was going to leave months before they actually had to leave.  Now we were down to just a few days and we still didn’t know who had a job come August 1 (next Monday).

On Tuesday afternoon, one at a time, someone would be paged on the Gaitronics Gray Phone (the plant PA system) by one of the four foremen that had survived.

Gray Phone Speaker

Gray Phone Speaker

We were cutting the number of first line foremen in Maintenance from 13 down to 4 and getting completely rid of two levels of management.  So, that we would no longer have an A foremen and a Supervisor over each group.  So, we wouldn’t have a position like an Electric Supervisor or a Mechanical Maintenance Supervisor.

Our new foremen were Andy Tubbs,

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

Alan Kramer,

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

Charles Patten

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

and Mark Fielder.

Mark Fielder

Mark Fielder

All great guys!

So, when one of them would page someone on the Gray Phone, we knew that they were going to be asked to meet them upstairs in the main office somewhere.  Then they were told that they had a position on that person’s team.

So, picture this scenario.  About 160 of the original 218 employees were waiting to learn their fate that week.  It was late Tuesday afternoon when Alan Hetherington told us that they had already begun calling operators to the office to tell them they had jobs.  They were not calling anyone to tell them that they didn’t have a job.  So, when you heard someone’s name being called, then you knew they were safe (well…. safe is a relative term).

On Wednesday just before lunch, I was called to the office by Alan Kramer.  He told me he was going to be my new foreman.  I hadn’t really worried about it up to that point, because, well, I just figured that I was pretty well irreplaceable since there really wasn’t anyone else that would go climbing around inside the precipitators during overhauls, so they would want to keep me around for that reason alone.

With that said, it was at least a little less stressful to actually have been told that I did have a position.  After all, I had caused so much trouble the previous few years, enough for some people to hold grudges against me.  So, I did have this small doubt in the back of my head that worried about that.

Alan Kramer explained to me that we would no longer have teams for each area of expertise.  We wouldn’t have teams of electricians or Instrument and Controls, or Testing, etc.  We would be cross-functional teams.  We would learn more about that next Monday.

When I returned to the Brown and Root building, the rest of the confined space team asked me if I had a job.  I told them I did.  At this point, all work at the plant seemed to have ceased.  Everyone was waiting around to receive a call on the Gray Phone.

At first, we thought this was going to be like the first downsizing where each person was called to the office and told if they had a job or they didn’t have a job.  By Wednesday afternoon, it became apparent that things weren’t working out that way.  The only people being called to the office were people that were being told they did have a job.  No one was being told if they didn’t.

Either this was a cruel joke being played on the Power Plant Men and Women, or the management hadn’t really thought about the consequences of doing this.  It became apparent right away to everyone including those that had been told they had a position that this was a terrible way to notify people about their future.  What about those that hadn’t been called to the front office?  What were they supposed to think?

About half of the Power Plant Men had received the call, when it seemed that the calls had just stopped some time on Thursday morning.  We had finished our last training session in the Brown and Root building and we were just meeting as a team to discuss our next steps in creating Confined Space rescue plans.  We were not making much progress, as everyone was just sitting around in a mild state of shock.

Alan Hetherington had not been called, so he figured that he wouldn’t have a job after Friday.  We discussed other people that were being left out.  No one on Gerald Ferguson’s team at the coal yard had been called (which included Alan).  We later heard that Gerald Ferguson, all distraught that his team had been wiped out was in disbelief that they had let his entire team go.

By Thursday afternoon, the stress became so bad for some that they had gone to Jim Arnold and asked him point blank if they had a job after Friday and he refused to say anything to them.  Preston Jenkins became so stressed out that he had to go home early because he was too sick with stress.

We knew that Bill Green was the new plant manager.

 

Bill Green

Bill Green

Jim Arnold was the new Supervisor of Operations  and Jasper Christensen was the Supervisor of Maintenance.  It seemed to us as if the downsizing was being orchestrated by Jim Arnold, as he was the one going all over the plant on Thursday and Friday coordinating things.

When we came into the office on Friday morning, all the radios had been taken from the electric shop office.  I was asked to go up to the logic room and shutdown the Gray phone system.  It became clear that Jim Arnold didn’t want anyone listening to what was going on throughout the day.

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

It was normal having Highway Patrol at the plant, because they were the regular plant guards at the front gate, but today there were a lot of them, and they were in uniform.  They were escorting people off of the plant grounds one at a time.  We were told that we were not supposed to interact with people being escorted off of the plant grounds.  We weren’t supposed to approach them to say goodbye.

It took the entire day to escort people out of the plant this way.  It was very dehumanizing that great Power Plant Men who we had all worked alongside for years were suddenly being treated as if they were criminals and were being escorted off of the plant grounds by armed Highway Patrolmen.

It was just as devastating for those that were left behind.  This was a clear indication that those people that were going to be our new supervisors (not our immediate foremen) had a warped sense of superiority.  They may have justified their actions in their minds in order to sleep at night, but the reality was that at least one person involved in this extraction of humanity was relishing in his new found power.

No one had been more left behind than Ron Kilman.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

He knew he didn’t have a future with the company for the past couple of months as this entire saga had been unfolding at the plant.  During the early retirement party for those that were leaving before the slaughter took place, Ron (an avid airplane pilot) had worn a shirt that said, “Will Fly for Food”, which he revealed by opening his outer shirt while introducing some of the retirees.  This had brought an applause that was reminiscent of the first day he had arrived some seven years earlier when he told a joke during his first meeting with the plant.

There were those at the plant that had reason to dislike Ron for specific decisions that he had made during his tenure at the plant.  One that comes to mind (that I haven’t already written about) is when Ray Eberle’s house was on fire and he left the plant to go fight the fire and make sure his family was safe.  Ron docked his pay for the time he was not on the plant grounds since he wasn’t a member of the voluntary fire department.  Ron has admitted since that time that there were certain decisions he made while he was Plant Manager that he would have changed if he could.

I felt as if I understood Ron, and knew that he was a good person that wanted to do the right thing.  I also knew there were times when a Plant Manager had to make unpopular decisions.  I also knew from my own experience that Ron, like everyone else was just as much human as the rest of us, and would occasionally make a decision he would later regret.  The times when Ron tried docking my pay after working long overtime hours, I just worked around it by taking vacation to make up for it and figured that he was playing the role of Plant Manager and following the rules the way he saw fit.

Some time shortly after lunch, Ron came into the electric shop office and sat down.  This was the first time in those seven years that he had come just for a visit and it was on his last day working for the company.  Ron just didn’t know what to do.

He explained that no one had told him anything.  No one had officially told him to leave.  No one had escorted him off of the plant grounds.  He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to make his exit.  Was he just supposed to go to his car and drive out the gate and never return?  No one told him anything.

The way Ron Kilman was treated Friday, July 29, 1994, was a clear representation of the type of people that were left in charge next Monday morning on August 1.  The entire plant knew this in their heart.  As much grief that was felt by the people being escorted out of the gate after years of loyal service to their company, those that were left behind felt every bit of that grief.

This was the darkest day in the history of the Power plant in North Central Oklahoma.  The Power Plant Men left behind by this experience were negatively effected for years after that day.  There was a bitterness and sorrow that took a long time to recover in their hearts.

The worst part of the event was that it was so unnecessary.  We understood that we had to downsize.  We had accepted that some of us would be leaving.  Each person at our plant had a level of decency that would accept the fact that when the time came for them to leave, they would hug their friends, say goodbye and with the help of each other, the rest would help them carry their stuff to their car and say goodbye.

We were all robbed of this opportunity.  Everyone, even those left behind, were suddenly treated as if we were criminals.  We had a “Black Friday” at the plant before, on February 15, 1985 (see the post “Power Plant Snitch“).  This time the impact was ten times worse.

All I can say to those who made the decision to handle the layoff this way is:  “Shame on you!  What would your Mother think if she knew what you did?”

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19 responses

  1. Yes and the purge now is to get rid of everyone that can remember or speaks of it! As we know with these oil prices it will affect Enogex/Enable in a bad way! and we know that will carry over every where else cut every where else in order to spare the precious Enable/Enogex that is what will happen they just dont know it yet.

  2. Wow, a very touching story. I can relate to the escort deal. I have worked for these types of heartless creeps. The ones that were escorted were the lucky ones. The new slave masters gloat over their power and care less. It changes how people want to stay loyal to a job that has heartless management. I am sorry for your experience and feel your pain… although it is greatly magnified. I did work for a manufacturing company many years ago. I was out on medical leave when the hostile takeover occured. I never returned. I worked there 10 years and because my medical leave had been extended they were able to fire me. That is what a layoff is. They rarely take people back. My boss and his boss were gone within a week. Everytime I called there to speak to one of my friends, more fires were happening. They just say thank you but your services are no longer needed and here is your timecard… punch out. But that is cold about the cops. It probably was to make sure no one went postal on them.

    You have a great gift as a story teller. I enjoy your stories… although I know they are true… you put heart into it. Be blessed

    1. Thanks Angel for your kind comments.

  3. Awesome posts always… A happy holiday Season 🙂

  4. I was given a chance to stay with OG&E. Dave Nunez called me at 10:30 one Wednesday night. He said I could have a job in Corporate Headquarters. I asked what the job description was. He said he “didn’t know”. I asked what the salary was. He said he “didn’t know”. I asked about the transition from my current salary to the new salary. He said he “didn’t know”. I asked how long I had to decided about this new job. He said “Before you hang up.” I have NEVER regretted not being a part of that new OG&E gang!

    1. Yes. I remember visiting with you one day in your driveway and you told me that story. At that time you were still looking for your next opportunity.

  5. Wow. I, too, work in a heavy industrial environment. We have our own power plant on site–nothing the size of yours, I’m sure. I know how these stories go. Always ending badly and always making people on both sides of the story feel small and humiliated. Seems their need for “security” always trumps the human interest part of the story. Such is life in big business today.

  6. You have used the correct term, “dehumanising”. I found this post very moving and it also angered me so much. I have seen it in our workplace. Obviously, they (new mgt) were not human. They were cowards. You will find that in life, generally, the cowards lose.

  7. Wow, that’s horrifying. The stress sounds awful.

    The closest experience I ever had to that was in the 1980s when a small company I was working for fell victim to a takeover by corporate sharks. In order to keep our jobs, every single one of us (several hundred employees) would have had to swallow a pay cut. I said screw that, and took unemployment instead. I’ve never regretted it, despite several nerve-wracking months being out of work.

    The new management ran the company into the ground, and it was out of business less than five years after I left.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Bad management must kill more businesses than anything else.

  8. exceptionally evocative writing; it feels real. It recalls experience at the end of an aircraft manufacturing contract … And I suppose, will bring some deja – vu to man.
    As for the attitudes shown by management; I recall reading that the first qualification for becoming a big-time CEO these days, is to be a psychopath.

  9. Thanks for visiting Whatyareckon. Enjoyed reading several of your articles and will certainly visit again. Didn’t know power plants and those who work there could be so interesting. Thanks for visiting and now I know where to find you.

    1. Thanks David. I look forward to our mutual education. 🙂

  10. So typical. Human decency is dying a slow death at the hands of greed.

  11. Thank you for sharing that experience. You are right, you and the others were robbed of the opportunity to say good bye and properly bear one another’s burdens.

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