The Electrical Worker online
December 2013

Upstate N.Y. Transformer Manufacturer
Expands Plant, Global Reach
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When Bill Woerner was hired by New York's Niagara Transformer 27 years ago, he joined 80 union workers at a family-owned company, expecting a steady job that could continue to deliver pay and benefits even as the area's auto plants and steel mills strained under extremes of boom and bust.

"My father was a steelworker who advised me to find the job that would be the most consistent," says Woerner, who began to learn the trade of a coil winder, producing the interior of the transformers by delicately wrapping copper or aluminum wires around a core interspersed with layers of insulation for cooling.

Woerner says he was proud to contribute to his employer's success in supplying a niche market for custom-designed transformers that can perform in punishing environments from the North Slope of Alaska to Antarctica.

Prospering Together

Led by the Darby family, Niagara Transformer and members of Buffalo Local 41 prospered together through many industry challenges such as the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, ostensibly calculated to increase markets for U.S.-manufactured goods, but which intensified competition in the electrical equipment market.

Thousands of factories shut down, including many in Upstate New York. The IBEW's manufacturing membership took deep hits, losing jobs to new plants being built just inside the Mexican border, where their products were then exported back to the U.S. But, Niagara Transformer — founded in 1933 — defied the death spiral and was still standing.

The company's business shifted to production of larger and more complex utility transformers and a new facility became a necessity.

Today, journeyman inside wiremen, who are also members of Local 41, are completing a new climate-controlled, dust-free building with carefully managed ambient temperatures, expanded testing and painting capabilities, high ceilings and huge cranes, all designed to accommodate larger transformers.

New Facility Supports Start-to-Finish Production

"The area where new transformers will be tested has the most elaborate grounding system I have ever installed," says Mike Brennan of Ferguson Electric, a local IBEW contractor who is the prime electrical contractor for the expansion. Transformer testing will be observed via streaming video by customers that include utilities, original equipment manufacturers and end users.

"The business of building bigger, higher-voltage transformers comes with more responsibility for cleanliness and a dust-free environment," says Ron Bailey, a 14-year employee and Local 41 shop steward who works as a tester.

Niagara Transformer has 40 union members who build transformers from start to finish, including welding and fabrication, coil winding, core cutting and stacking, core and coil assembly, control wiring and conduit, testing and shipping. Local 41 members meticulously dry out the transformers and finish control boxes, performing all wiring, pipefitting and painting. The company provides extensive training in multiple disciplines to continuously invest in its workers.

Bailey, whose father, like Woerner's, worked at Worthington Steel, says workers are looking forward to a more spacious, modern work environment. "There is some concern as with any expansion, but we feel it will make Niagara a better place to work for many years to come," Bailey said.

Woerner and Bailey credit Niagara's President John Darby — a third-generation member of the company's founding family — for, years ago, involving hourly workers in a difficult, but necessary process to improve productivity and streamline the work force without resorting to the bait-and-switch tactics of other employers.

"Our joint success, as an IBEW local and as a company, is tied to the efficient, cost effective manufacturing of our product, putting our customer's quality first and positioning us as a lean, cost effective competitor in what is now a worldwide marketplace," Darby says. "Competitiveness and quality allow us to win, and not just here in the U.S., but in the 82 countries around the world that we service."

While the company continues to diversify and enter new markets, competition continues to grow, with Chinese competitors emerging as the newest threat to U.S. manufacturers.

"As a union, we've realized the need to work with the company to continue to make us viable and competitive," says Woerner, a father of three.

'Lean' Manufacturing

While lean manufacturing has been criticized by some labor activists as a tactic to institute speedup and increase profits on the backs of workers, it has been used successfully at Niagara Transformer.

Over the last 10 years, managers and union workers attended seminars together at the University of Buffalo. Focusing on collaborative techniques made popular by Toyota and now used by many manufacturers to streamline their workflow, management and union members reorganized production and established lean manufacturing groups that included cross training workers and creating cross functional teams from all areas of the company.

At Niagara, says Woerner, lean manufacturing succeeded by enabling workers who once only knew one aspect of the manufacturing process to understand how their pieces of work fit into the whole puzzle of fabricating high-quality transformers for an ever-changing customer base.

Darby kept faith with the work force even as the union's numbers declined. Members knew that economic development officials in North Carolina were making a play for him to relocate, offering tax and other incentives. They had seen competitors come and go. Rapid Transformer, a Connecticut-based company, had come up to Western New York to set up operations in a facility that had been abandoned by Worthington Industry. They didn't last, but Niagara did, with the help of the high skill and productive IBEW work force it employed.

Skill, Experience Protect Jobs

"John Darby had to weigh his options, but I'm convinced that the single most important factor in his decision to remain in this area was the skill and experience of our members and their commitment to producing the highest quality products," says Local 41 Business Manager Mike Gaiser.

Darby tapped help from his state's congressional delegation. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Brian Higgins (R-N.Y.) nurtured Niagara's development of the site of its new plant through their support of the Brownfields Utilization, Investment and Local Development (BUILD) Act. Darby joined them at a press conference on the site last July to applaud the program that gives incentives to companies for cleaning up contaminated parcels, building new infrastructure and returning sites to productive use.

"The Federal BUILD program and similar New York State programs we participated in have been efficient and effective from my point of view and should be a model of how government and the private sector can work together to benefit the entire community, grow jobs and build investment for many years to come," Darby said.

Niagara's commitment is to Upstate New York, says Woerner, who served on Local 41's negotiating committee through several contracts. Darby added "We want to win here — in Western New York — in our own backyard."

Reiterating the tag line he lent to the company's Web site, Darby summarizes what makes Niagara different: "At our core, Niagara Transformer has the best people taking on the toughest engineering challenges with the highest quality and the shortest lead times."

Global Competition Still Hitting Home

Comparing the consciousness of union activists in the '60s and '70s to the thinking of today's grassroots members, Woerner says there is a greater understanding of the need to factor in not just what the employers are up against, but the "competition we face as workers." He expresses concern that the rules governing global trade are still skewed against domestic workers and owners alike, leaving fewer success stories like the one emerging at Niagara Transformer.

The U.S. government and our companies spend money to design and engineer products and other countries steal it, he says. "Domestic manufacturers have all of the expenses and the competitors reap all of the cost savings and more," he says.

The blowback hurts responsible employers like Niagara Transformer. As longtime employees retire and Darby looks to staff the new facility, he is having trouble finding suitable applicants. Regional job markets are always subject to a multitude of factors, but Buffalo's mature manufacturing base has been eroding for decades, Woerner said. "Too many young people have been told by their parents: 'There is no future making things with your hands. Go to college and get an education.'"

However, as Niagara Transformer has proved, there is productive and satisfying work out there for young people who want to come to work, work hard and learn a trade with a company and a union that are working jointly by investing and planning for their successful, collective future.


A unique perspective of a transmission tower in Birmingham, England. Niagara Transformer supplies 82 countries around the world.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Ian Halsey.


Utility workers in Alaska position a transformer manufactured by Niagara Transformer in Buffalo.


Niagara Transformer President John Darby, left, joins Ron Bailey, shop steward, Buffalo Local 41, on the site of the company's $15 million expansion project.