By Kari Lydersen

After 31 years working for Commonwealth Edison, Jeffrey Thayer never imagined that his wages would be cut in half or that he would go from being a control-room operator to cleaning up spills with a vacuum hose. All because he wanted to stay with the company he’d put his life into and didn’t want to lose his pension. “I missed a lot of Little League games and Christmases for the company,” says the 49-year-old Thayer. “The company always came first–even before my family. Then they just threw me away like a piece of garbage.”

Thayer had worked for Com Ed’s State Line plant, on Lake Michigan just across the border in Indiana. But last December, after a messy process that began in May 1995, Com Ed sold the plant to Southern Energy Inc. (By selling State Line and its Kincaid plant it erased some of its debt, making it more competitive in the coming deregulated market.) The 110 plant employees were offered three choices: accept a voluntary separation package, apply for an SEI job, or stay on at Com Ed but take a pay cut of approximately $5 an hour to do less-skilled jobs at other plants in Illinois.

Nine workers chose the separation package, and 73 were hired by SEI. The remaining 28 workers, including Thayer, wanted to stay with Com Ed, either because they hadn’t been hired by SEI or because they didn’t want to lose their pensions. According to Riley Vercher Jr.–president of the union at State Line, United Steelworkers of America Local 12502–these workers were willing to accept all the terms of the deal except the pay cut, and they asked Com Ed to negotiate on that issue. Vercher says Com Ed told them it was all or nothing.

Determined to fight for a better deal, Vercher asked the Illinois Commerce Commission to freeze the sale to SEI until the wage issues were worked out. Com Ed still refused to offer a better deal, and the union negotiating team turned the original one down. Then the sale went through, and the 28 workers–who’d put in 14 to 31 years with the company and were all at the top of the pay scale, making more than $24 an hour–wound up accepting entry-level maintenance and janitorial jobs for only $13.37 an hour, sometimes at plants hours away from their homes. (Heather Fabian, spokesperson for Com Ed, said that no one from Com Ed wanted to comment on personnel matters.)

Vercher, who spent several months making $13 an hour at the Waukegan plant but is now making $19.83 as a class-B boiler operator in Joliet, says Com Ed told the 28 workers it refused to pay them their old wages for doing their new entry-level jobs because of the “economics” of deregulation. But he thinks Com Ed managers were angry that the union refused the $5-an-hour pay cut and angry that it asked the ICC to freeze the sale. “I can’t see how 28 people will break the company,” he says. “It would be a total of $600,000 more a year to keep our wages. If it’s economics, why are they giving the managers raises and spending all this money to plaster ads all over downtown? It’s personal. It’s revenge. [Senior vice president] Bob Manning wants you to bow down to him, and I wouldn’t do that.”

Vercher says there were other inequities in the way Com Ed treated the State Line workers. They were offered $5,000 if they signed up with SEI, but workers at the Kincaid plant (near Springfield) were offered $20,000 in a similar deal. (The State Line workers later lost the $5,000 when the union turned down Com Ed’s original deal.) Workers from Kincaid and the recently closed Zion nuclear plant had their wages protected when they moved; many are now paid top wages even if they’re doing entry-level jobs. Vercher also says that Com Ed CEO John Rowe made a speech on the company’s internal TV channel about promoting minorities. “Most of us [20 of the 28] are minorities,” Vercher says, “and he won’t address our concerns or even return our phone calls.”

Ten of the 28 State Line workers were offered jobs as meter readers making $19 an hour, but none of them could handle the work, which requires reading almost 600 meters a day. “That’s only a young guy’s job,” says Vercher. “It’s like being a marathon runner. You’re jumping over fences, dealing with dogs. They tell you to use a screwdriver to open the basement doors on apartments. It’s very hazardous.” The ten workers were bumped down to $13-an-hour entry-level station-laborer jobs at the distant Waukegan plant.

But Vercher concedes that the 28 workers also suffered because they were Steelworkers. State Line was in an area where the Steelworkers had traditionally dominated, but it was the only Com Ed plant that went with that union. Workers at all the other Com Ed plants in the region were represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The IBEW had nothing to do with the negotiations during the sale process, and William Starr, president of IBEW Local 15, admits that his union doesn’t feel particularly responsible for the 28 workers’ current welfare. Now the Steelworkers have also abandoned the 28 workers, who are no longer dues-paying members. “Once the transfer took place, [the Steelworkers] said, ‘You don’t pay union dues anymore–it’s the IBEW’s problem,'” says Jim Coogan, who was bumped down to an entry-level janitorial job after 17 years with Com Ed. “But the IBEW’s not going to bat for us either. They say, ‘You came from the Steelworkers–let them deal with it.'”

Vercher blames Starr for not doing more for the transferred workers, since they’re now IBEW members. “If someone had come to the Steelworkers in this position when I was president, I would have fought for them,” he says. “Bill Starr suggested they give us gate-guard jobs. That’s an entry-level, nonpromotion job.” Vercher thinks the IBEW was trying to keep any better jobs open for IBEW members at the Kincaid plant, which was sold three months after State Line. Starr responds, “The reason IBEW workers got better deals is that we represent all the other plants. There’s no way I’m going to take your people and place them in front of IBEW people.”

Many of the former State Line workers are particularly bitter because in the past few years conditions at the plant had been even more exhausting and stressful than usual. Under the plan instituted to cut costs in anticipation of deregulation, according to Vercher, the union staff had been reduced from 285 in 1981 to 115 in 1997. New employees hadn’t been hired to replace retirees or fired workers, says Coogan, and the remaining staff were expected to fill in on overtime. A report from the union to Com Ed on how much overtime workers were putting in notes: “They’re worn out. They don’t have any family life, and the only times they’re at home they’re sleeping.” Coogan says, “We were expected to meet these unrealistic goals with equipment that was completely outdated, built in the 20s.”

The uncertainty over what was happening with the sale also lowered morale. Many workers reported personal and health problems. “It takes a toll on you,” says Vercher. “I was working a lot of overtime. I was getting headaches and fatigue. Then when I was off I’d be calling people and writing letters about this. I get off work in the morning and can’t sleep. I’m hollering at my family. It affects everyone.”

Coogan was making $65,000 a year with overtime doing class-A boiler maintenance. Now he hopes to clear $30,000 as a janitor. He says he feels demeaned and angry. “How do you go from operating a $60-million unit to pushing a broom? The more I think about it the more it burns me up.”

Vercher and Coogan talked to a lawyer about suing Com Ed, but the lawyer didn’t seem interested in pursuing the case. “How do you fight Edison?” says Coogan. “They get whatever they want. We’re the lightweights and they’re the heavyweights.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Riley Vercher Jr. photo by Bruce Powell.