MONACA, Pa. (AP) - Herman Marshman, papers arrayed before him, reading glasses on the brim of his nose, peered up at his men. He was looking for more people he could trust.
A stony silence hung among the dozen or so men seated at long tables in the stuffy wood-paneled back room of a union hall in Midland. An April thunderstorm washed against the glass block windows. Dinner leftovers curdled in aluminum foil pans.
He sighed and lowered his voice. “The point is, guys,” he said, winding down after another one of his heated tirades, “bankruptcy is a great possibility … Right now is the time for everyone to come together. Because we’re facing a dilemma we have never faced before.”
Marshman knew he wasn’t convincing everyone they needed to stick together. He knew that before him sat only a fraction of the more than 200 workers he represented at Bruce Mansfield, the immense coal-fired power plant down the road.
He knew that after 12 years as a local president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, his iron grip on power was fraying as union elections approached.
It was a familiar, if not comfortable, spot for the 59-year-old Marshman.
Though tension can be natural and even productive in negotiations between management and unions anywhere, labor relations at Pennsylvania’s largest power plant have been fraught of late.
As the company copes with shifting energy demand and sliding profits, its unionized workforce is in conflict internally over how to respond to the industry’s crushing problems. The Beaver County power plant sits on the front line as broader shifts in the American economy collide with the Ohio company’s relationship with its experienced labor force.
On one side, IBEW Local 272 is led by a litigious band of aging power plant workers who, even in better days and under different ownership, stood ready to challenge company decisions.
Marshman, a gifted orator who spent countless hours at libraries teaching himself labor law, initiated years of bruising battles before the National Labor Relations Board - and the union won many of them, largely without help of other local unions or powerful attorneys.
In the opposing corner, FirstEnergy’s power plants have lost money in electricity markets - to the point that the Akron, Ohio-based energy company plans to shed Bruce Mansfield and about a dozen other plants in the next year or so. That means the plants could be sold, thrown into bankruptcy or shut down altogether.
As the two sides continued to face off, Local 272’s membership had been questioning whether Marshman was the right leader to represent them in the battle.
Revered by older members as one of the last true union leaders, his impassioned pleas for unity began to fall flat with many of the younger members who see no victories in his Napoleonic crusades against the company.
Last month, increasingly bitter divisions with membership finally boiled over: Marshman lost his presidency to a challenger who has little experience with the union.
The loss stung and angered Marshman, but it also came with some relief. Entering his 37th year at the plant, the constant bargaining had eaten away at his health. He recently had thought more often about the nervous breakdowns and heart attacks suffered by previous union presidents.
“Sometimes I just wish I wasn’t the person I am,” Marshman said. “I wish I just didn’t care, you know? I just want to turn it off and go home. That would be the safest thing for me.”
The glowing valley
Bruce Mansfield, the largest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania, is a hulking landmark in a deep, quiet valley carved by the Ohio River into Beaver County, near where Ohio and West Virginia converge with the commonwealth.
On the same river shore, the plant is matched in size by the Beaver Valley nuclear power station, which also is owned by FirstEnergy.
The plants were constructed in the 1970s, part of a building spree to feed an American economy still in expansion. In the Ohio River valley, national growth was celebrated in the industrial capacity and the hard labor its residents poured into it.
By 1980, when the third unit came online at Bruce Mansfield, the plant burned coal for electricity 24 hours a day. A mile away, the Crucible Steel mill in Midland glowed at night. Ceramics factories in East Liverpool, Ohio, churned out pottery and porcelain. Conrail hauled freight through one of the busiest rail yards in the country in Conway.
An orange haze hung over the valley, recalled Guy Taylor, who grew up in East Liverpool and whose father was the model of civic duty: working in the Midland steel mill, managing a trucking business and volunteering for civil defense.
Taylor’s father also saw signs the steel industry was nearing a cliff. He flew into a rage after learning his son wanted to join buddies working in the mills. He pointed his son instead to Bruce Mansfield, a job that surely was safer, stable and within a short drive of home.
In the early 1980s, Taylor joined a young and growing crew of nearly 1,000 workers represented by the IBEW. The union ensured good working conditions and benefits, and the company, then known as Pennsylvania Power Co., made a lot of money.
Taylor quickly formed a friendship with Marshman - a fellow young black man at the plant, unusual for a profession dominated by white men. Marshman, short and stocky with probing brown eyes, shared with Taylor a passion for reggae music and a fresh optimism for social progress through collective action.
Marshman idolized Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, and he saw himself carrying on their legacy.
“I respected everything that they did,” he recalled. In particular, Ali’s sacrifice of a boxing career to protest the Vietnam War stuck with him. “Even though I was young at that time, I understood the injustice of that and how unfair this country was for doing what they did and stripping him of his belt.”
Ali “made a commitment,” he added, and it “taught me that you must be willing to give everything for what you believe in.”
The cash cows
The valley’s salad days didn’t last long. Taylor’s father was right: The steel industry collapsed, reshaping the region’s economy forever. The Bruce Mansfield power plant adjusted by cutting back on its union workforce by 25 percent and bringing in contractors to perform the work.
The move sparked the union’s first arbitration case for Marianne Oliver, a young labor lawyer who joined the Pittsburgh law firm Gilardi, Cooper & Lomupo in 1987 to represent Local 272 and other unions. She won the case and saved those jobs - one of them belonging to Marshman.
Coal was the fuel of choice at power plants, and Bruce Mansfield was one of the largest users in the country. According to recent figures from FirstEnergy, the plant burned more than 7 million tons of coal each year to produce 2,490 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 1.5 million homes.
“We were the cash cows,” Taylor said. “We used to have record runs. We’d go years without our units going down. That’s nothing but cash. We built the company.”
As the young guys got older, they knew coal power plants had hazards just like the mills.
For years, they washed their coveralls, spare parts and tools in trichloroethylene, a chemical later classified as carcinogenic. They worked in the presence of thousands of chemicals whose known risks are explained in an encyclopedic binder that Mr. Taylor now uses as a visual aid when he testifies for workers at public meetings.
They would climb into the hoppers of boilers to clear out hardened coal residue, often getting drenched with contaminated water.
“You could feel it gritting in your teeth,” said Roger Stickler, 63, who was a young Bruce Mansfield recruit in 1977. It didn’t matter, though. With 30 years of service, they were told, they could retire at 55 with a full pension and health care.
“We had the best health care in the valley,” Stickler said. “It was like a big family. (They said) just come to work, keep your nose clean, do your job, and we’ll take care of you when it’s time to leave.”
Ten moves ahead
But the benefits companies were willing to provide began to erode.
In 2005, Marshman, after years of watching companies gain leverage on organized labor, took the mantle of union president. Though his formal education had ended with an Aliquippa High School diploma, he spent hours in libraries, his office in the union hall in Midland and his home in Youngstown, obsessively burying himself in labor law and court cases.
As a moderately good chess player, Marshman reasoned, “I had to understand what I was up against, what I had to do from day one,” he said. “The great chess players, they’re 8, 9, 10 moves ahead.”
While he enjoyed the research at first, he soon became distraught. He discovered that labor injustices were sometimes just as much the fault of unions, their lawyers and union-friendly politicians as they were of corporate America.
“When you learn and understand history, then you know why things are the way they are,” he said. Why legal precedents seemed to fall against labor. Why the international labor councils in Washington, D.C., seemed ambivalent. Why the notion of a good blue-collar career seemed to fade.
It was a damaging acquiescence that allowed companies, for example, to renege on providing full health care and pensions to workers and retirees, he said.
“Unions years ago would stand and fight to maintain these core legacy benefits,” he said. “Now, they want to trade off. They want to barter . And people have to suffer because the people who were supposed to represent them aren’t doing it.”
More than other local presidents, Marshman involved himself in legal proceedings, often clashing with his own attorneys. Not long into his tenure, Local 272 won an arbitration case. Marshman thought the settlement, though favorable, wasn’t good enough, so he directed Oliver to appeal it to federal court.
“And I said, ‘Herman, we won this case! No!’” Oliver recalled, sitting in her office on the tenth floor of the Benedum-Trees Building on Fourth Avenue. “‘Get yourself another lawyer!’ We were screaming at each other.”
Changes across the bargaining table
Meanwhile, changes were playing out across the bargaining table.
Since the 1990s, a wave of consolidation in the energy industry saw electric power grow larger through mergers and acquisitions. Corporations grew more complex as they bought up more power plants, along with the long-range transmission networks and the distribution utilities that delivered power to customers.
Born out of the merger craze, FirstEnergy incorporated in 1997 as the combination of two utilities in northeastern Ohio - Centerion Energy and Ohio Edison, the corporate parent of Penn Power.
Four years later, FirstEnergy expanded to central Pennsylvania and New Jersey, buying Pennsylvania Electric Co., Metropolitan Edison Co. and Jersey Central Power & Light.
In 2009, it approached Allegheny Energy, based in Greensburg - itself a conglomerate of power holdings in Western Pennsylvania, including West Penn Power, and in West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. That deal, approved two years later with the blessing of regulators and shareholders, made FirstEnergy the largest investor-owned electric utility in the country with 6 million customers.
By all appearances, FirstEnergy was thrilled to deepen its investment in coal-fired plants. In 2012, a year after the deal closed, the company reported that 60 percent of its power generating capacity came from coal.
The merger with Allegheny Energy more than doubled FirstEnergy’s coal-fired power capacity, and provided “opportunities for the company to grow and expand into new markets with a stronger, more focused competitive operation,” the company stated on its website.
But a sea change in the electric markets doomed coal’s fortunes quickly thereafter. Drillers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere used fracking technology to unleash an ocean of natural gas, a cheaper and cleaner-burning fuel. At the same time, clean air regulations made it more difficult for some coal-fired plants to operate.
Now finding them unprofitable, FirstEnergy has spent the last four years ridding itself of coal plants.
Hatfield’s Ferry and Mitchell power plants shuttered in 2013, laying off 380 workers in Washington and Greene counties. In 2015, three smaller coal-fired plants near Cleveland shut down, displacing more than 200 workers.
While Bruce Mansfield still churned on, operations grew more tenuous. Temporary shutdowns - a coal plant is designed to run all the time - have become more frequent in recent years.
“I would say our fleet has performed well,” Chuck Jones, FirstEnergy chief executive officer, said during a February 2015 conference call with investors, after the Bruce Mansfield plant twice shut down temporarily. “The markets have not.”
Taking on the company
At Bruce Mansfield, the workers chafed at their new, out-of-state corporate overlords. Many longtime managers were either fired or quit, Taylor said, and replacements were brought in by Akron. The workers protested new directives to run and maintain the plant differently.
For Marshman, FirstEnergy crystallized everything he’d grown to distrust. And it meant that all those nights poring over old Supreme Court cases were about to reap dividends.
Though Local 272 over the decades was no stranger to the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that adjudicates labor disputes, cases picked up steam as Marshman and FirstEnergy dueled in the windowless administrative courtrooms of the William S. Moorhead Federal Building in Downtown.
Marshman sometimes charmed FirstEnergy officials even as he fought them. In September 2012, for instance, a company official called to notify employee service awards would be given out every 10 years instead of every five years.
“Oh, no, you don’t. I’m going to have to come to Akron for this one.”
- Herman Marshman
“Oh, no, you don’t,” Marshman responded, according to NLRB documents. “I’m going to have to come to Akron for this one.”
Eileen McNamara, then FirstEnergy’s director of labor relations, typed an email relaying the conversation to her supervisor: “Herman is not happy (although very polite and made nice jokes). He said . ‘Now you know I have to file a board charge, honey’ and now he ‘has to come to Akron for this one.’ He was very nice about it though. He was actually quite funny - but I am sure he is serious about the charge and coming to Akron.”
In Marshman’s mind, FirstEnergy’s most damaging proposals were emblematic of anti-union policies nationwide: rolling back health care benefits to Local 272 retirees, in addition to launching a “mobile maintenance” initiative to replace work historically done by the union with roving crews of FirstEnergy maintenance employees.
FirstEnergy has argued that mobile maintenance crews are necessary to finish big jobs that the union doesn’t have the workforce to do. Local 272’s membership has sharply declined in recent years, dropping from 357 to 222 in the last six years, largely because workers have retired or quit and not been replaced.
But Marshman would not have it. Even when the most recent contract expired in February 2014, he rejected the company’s proposals for a new four-year contract, refusing to even bring the offer back to the full union membership for a vote.
By October 2015, FirstEnergy made a final offer and sent a letter directly to union members, asking them to vote. Along with the cuts, the offer came with tantalizing wage increases.
Salaries at the plant varied among two dozen job classifications, as listed in the union’s 2009 contract. Pay ranged from $54,300 for a laboratory analyst to $65,200 for an electrician to $70,300 for a control room operator.
But the members backed Marshman. “His guys really stuck together, and that’s why they’ve come so far. It’s refreshing, really,” Oliver said. “I think (FirstEnergy) thought if they sent that letter to his members that his members would have a revolt.”
Then, using a legal maneuver, FirstEnergy declared a bargaining “impasse,” and implemented its final offer on Oct. 25, 2015, including the retiree health care cuts and the use of nonunion labor - but without the wage increases.
The move sparked immediate labor charges.
Last December, Marshman and Oliver went before an National Labor Relations Board judge to argue against lawyers from Jones Day that if FirstEnergy declared an impasse and implemented the contract, it must include the wage increases. They also argued against the use of mobile maintenance and contracting out jobs performed by union workers.
A dozen or so workers from the plant sat on uncomfortable benches in the courtroom for two days of hearings, backing Marshman as he testified. Though the Pittsburgh NLRB judge returned a ruling in the union’s favor in February, FirstEnergy appealed the decision to the national board in Washington, D.C. That appeal is still pending.
FirstEnergy declined to discuss contract negotiations or its relationship with Local 272 for this story.
At the end of 2016, nearly half of the company’s 15,707 employees were represented by a union, according to its annual report. The company had negotiated 22 bargaining agreements with local chapters of the IBEW, the Utility Workers Union of America, the Office and Professional Employees International Union and others.
“FirstEnergy bargains in good faith to establish fair contracts with all organized labor unions working at our facilities,” a company spokeswoman wrote in a statement.
A revolt over pay
If FirstEnergy’s move to push through the contract without wage increases was meant to inspire a revolt, it worked. Two years had gone by without a worker-approved contract as the labor relations board case dragged on.
Union workers at FirstEnergy’s other plants had accepted the cuts and gotten higher pay, leaving Local 272 the lone holdout.
Perhaps most importantly, Marshman lost control of the narrative that the company was to blame for the bargaining gridlock. Accusations and frustrations directed at Marshman swirled among workers in Bruce Mansfield’s lunch room; attendance at monthly union meetings in Midland waned.
As the union president grew angrier and more defensive, he became more authoritarian. He began to feel he couldn’t trust anyone, and union meetings devolved into polemics from Marshman and among members who showed up.
“I don’t fault them because they’re ignorant,” he said after one meeting. “They don’t understand because they don’t come around. They sit over there in that lunch room and talk among themselves. They don’t have a clue, they don’t have an inkling.”
Meanwhile, the company removed him from his job in February, citing medical restrictions that prevent him from performing duties at the plant. Marshman and Oliver claim it was retaliation after his testimony in December, and they filed a charge with the NLRB. The injuries stem from a car accident years ago, Marshman said, and the company must make work available to him.
In an email, a FirstEnergy spokeswoman confirmed Marshman “was placed on sick leave after he was unable to fulfill the duties of his position.”
In May, Marshman finally brought the membership a proposal that included a 10.5 percent increase in wages but that codified the company’s power to use mobile maintenance. It passed 170-24.
That was too little, too late for many members.
“Times are changing, you know? You gotta realize that sometimes, and you gotta pick your battles,” said Vic Roppa, a 56-year-old electrician at the plant. “I just think we pay too heavy a price and I think just not having a contract for years and years - it’s not really fighting. It’s helping (FirstEnergy). They saved a lot of money.”
Roppa, who came to the plant in 2001 after 20 years working in steel mills, admitted he hadn’t been active in the union beyond paying dues.
But he and others became frustrated at not have the opportunity to vote on contracts and said the lost wages were “pretty astronomical.” So, at May’s union meeting, he announced he would challenge Marshman for president.
“I’m embarrassed I didn’t do this a long time ago,” he said. “I should’ve done it years ago.”
A new president
For Marshman and his close friends, Roppa’s challenge was the ultimate affront. FirstEnergy is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, they said, and Roppa’s inexperience made him unqualified to bargain with one of the largest companies in the country.
“They don’t have any sense of unity,” Taylor said one May afternoon after a shift at the plant. “I told Herman this was coming. I told him. And he just wasn’t ready for it. He didn’t think it would happen this fast. He’s the last union guy, man, I’m telling you. He just doesn’t understand it, it’s over.”
On June 20, the paper ballots were counted at the Midland union hall, an aging brick building Local 272 shares with the Knights of Columbus. As one union officer called out the names for three others to tally and confirm, Marshman paced upstairs in his office.
Roppa sat in a chair by the pool table and kept a tally. He pulled out to an early lead, but Marshman closed the gap. Roppa fidgeted, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose as if he had a migraine.
“He’s the last union guy, man, I’m telling you. He just doesn’t understand it, it’s over.”
- Guy Taylor
Soon, the results became clear: a 91-70 victory, and a new leader for Local 272. Roppa shook the ballot-counters’ hands and then left in his truck.
Upstairs, out of a job and the union, Marshman stayed at his desk for some time as the sky darkened, coming to terms with the results. He wore a thinning black T-shirt with a white outline of Martin Luther King’s expressive face in mid-speech.
“My life is my life now,” he said. That means trying to get his job back and leaving on his own terms.
Asked if he had any regrets, he shook his head. “I didn’t give up anything. The only thing that was taken from me was by my membership and by the company.”
At Bruce Mansfield, the billowing steam still rises, apparently business as usual. Both in the union hall and at the plant, the next year could bring even more pressure on the divided workforce.
Roppa will “wake up tomorrow to his worst nightmare,” Marshman said, walking out of his office and locking the door.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com
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