Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds

Originally posted December 27, 2014:

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 (actually, Mike Vogle was the foreman.  Mark Fielder changed roles with him some time after the Re-org)

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 (the rest had retired).  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 (see 50% of the posts I have written to find out how), 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 staring into space.

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.  He blamed it on the fact that his team had refused to participate in the Quality Process since it was deemed “voluntary”.

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 even 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 treating our friends this way were going to be our new supervisors (not our immediate foremen) and that they 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 the plant manager, Ron Kilman who was too young to accept the retirement package.

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 keep my overtime 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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4 responses

  1. I think the company made the right decision. They knew that I would not go along as an enforcer of their evil and despicable layoff procedures. I had made a few “waves” previously with upper management and that might have been a factor in my own separation. I left with a few regrets, but with many successes and happy memories. I am most fortunate to have escaped the “shame” you so correctly attributed to those who sold their souls to the company just for a continuing paycheck.

  2. I am an educator, writer, and artist, wife and mother….and know nothing about your world…but I read this entire blog and felt a sadness for all those who now have to find another living for themselves and their families. In my field of education, I remember times before my retirement when things were not handled properly by those in “higher positions”. For me, one of these was being told that I would have to “go through beginning teacher program” because we moved from one county of Florida to another. In my previous experience, I had not only accomplished higher degrees; went from teacher to administrator with the privilege of supervising beginning teachers from near Universities. Yet, this county wanted me to start over again as if I had never accomplished anything as an educator! That was the year I decided to retire. Thankfully I was able to do so. Life and people are not fair, but I’d say to those who have a heavy heart and many years of experience as Power Plant Men, there is something waiting for you. For me, after retirement, I had opportunities to teach in Mongolia, Ukraine, and do mission work in Guatemala. I would not trade those times for anything! Sometimes God has more planned for us than we can ever imagine. Recently, I heard this saying, “Don’t mourn for the things you’ve lost, but rejoice in what you had.” I’m sure there are many good memories; funny stories, and reunions that will be a part of the future…as well as friends never to be forgotten. To ALL a blessed NEW YEAR.

  3. There are ways to do layoffs and there are ways not to do layoffs. What you’ve described is definitely the latter. How absolutely awful.

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