The Electrical Worker online
September 2014

Durability Defines Workforce at
Eaton's W. Pa. Circuit Breaker Plant
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"Continuous miners," those hulking 53-ton machines with spinning claws that rip five tons of coal a minute from underground seams, sometimes run over their own electrical cables. When they do, they and the flesh and blood miners who maintain them need quick protection from durable and dependable circuit breakers. Sparks kill.

The best-in-class 600- and 800-amp molded case circuit breakers for punishing underground duty are assembled by members of Local 201 working in Eaton Industries' Beaver, Pa., plant, 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Walking through the doors of Eaton's facility, opened 70 years ago to manufacture propellers for World War II fighters, one is struck by its aura of order and efficiency.

"I take new hires on their first tour of the plant and they always say they are surprised by how clean it is," says Eric Hoover, Local 201 business manager. It's no wonder.

Surrounding Beaver — a thriving place on the Ohio River, once occupied by managers of now idled steel mills — are struggling, rusting towns where cleanliness is the least of the worries.

"Working at Eaton is a second chance for many workers [who lost their jobs in other industries]. They understand what they lost. Both sides here realize that it takes each other to be successful," says Human Resources Manager John Bechdel, who spent 25 years in the area's steel industry.

Cheryl Meador, an Eaton assembler, worked at Mayer China, a legendary maker of high-quality restaurant ware, putting handles on teacups before the facility closed down in 2003. She then worked at an American Eagle distribution center before being hired by Eaton nine years ago as an assembler in the 500,000 square-foot red brick plant, where brackets for blackout panels that once guarded against German attacks still jut out below a high strip of windows.

Meador joins third-generation plant workers like Bob Javens, operating drill presses, punch presses and CNC machinery.

"This plant survives on quality. We take a lot of pride in what we build," says Javens, a bearded, broad-shouldered CNC operator wearing bib overalls, whose grandfather started working in the Beaver plant in 1944.

"We cater to specialty markets," says Plant Manager Steve Huggins. "We shock test circuit breakers that will be installed on Navy destroyers," says Huggins. They have to stay closed during potential attacks. Supporting Eaton's market share, the company offers superior service and repairs on breakers, concentrating on the mining industry, from centers in Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana.

The plant, he says, has a good reputation for quality within Eaton, which employs more than 100,000 workers, markets power management apparatus to 175 countries and racks up sales of $22 billion a year.

James Roberts worked in his family's pizza shop and says he likes getting home from work in time to spend a few hours with his children. New to a union shop, he says, "If I have a problem, I can always talk to the Local 201 steward to get help."

"We produce quality circuit breakers with pride and teamwork," adds Jeff Hertzler, a chief shop steward who serves on Local 201's executive board.

"Our union keeps us working together for the same goals," says Hertzler, a CNC operator who, last year, served on the negotiating committee for a new contract. "It was a proud moment in my career," he says.

Hoover and his team continuously work through issues large and small with managers, keeping grievances to a minimum and always looking to improve quality, efficiency and worker safety.

With an escalating rate of baby boomer retirements in the 315-member plant, "a lot of knowledge is walking out the door," says Hoover, who negotiated a training program for punch press operators, directed by Rich Cox, a 20-year Local 201 member. Trainees for the new punch press specialist position start at a lower pay rate, but rates are enhanced once they are fully trained. "The union is adapting to change to keep a viable manufacturing plant here," says Hoover. "If our punch press operators were not competitive and the work was outsourced, we would lose other jobs, too."

More than 11 years ago, Eaton instituted a lean manufacturing program, investing more authority in employees in return for increased productivity. Assemblers are divided into work cells, directed by hourly group leaders. They rotate between machines and tasks, breaking job monotony, improving fill-in performance when co-workers take vacation or sick leave.

The plant is maintained by 20 craft workers, mechanics, electricians, electronic technicians and pipefitters, all members of Local 201. Jim Long, a machine repairman and the local's recording secretary, says Eaton has shown a renewed interest in safety, hiring an outside contractor to evaluate machinery and design proper guarding to protect workers from injury. The company has also stepped up its enforcement of OSHA's lockout/tagout standards.

At lunch break, workers line up at the plant's cafeteria, run by a popular local restaurant. Later, if they want to work off some calories, they can exercise in the facility's new fitness center.

Chauncey Brimage, daughter of punch press operator Quinn Alexander, has been working as an assembler for three years. Eaton's tuition reimbursement plan, widely used in the facility, will enable her to complete her associate's degree in accounting before she transfers to Penn State's Beaver campus.

Beating competitors with low prices isn't always the surest road to success.

"Low price can't make up for circuit breakers that won't last [on tough applications]," says Huggins.

Despite its focus on the U.S. market, signs of industrial globalization are everywhere at Eaton. Boxes stamped "Made in China," are stacked up waiting to be unloaded. Half of the parts installed in Eaton's circuit breakers are made elsewhere. The plant once employed 3,500 workers who produced most of them on site.

Eaton recently opened a more mechanized circuit breaker plant in the Dominican Republic producing 250-amp models, operating with far fewer workers.

An ivory-colored Bliss punch press carries the steel nameplate of the vintage U.S. machinery works. Just down the spacious aisle, large block letters spelling "K-o-m-a-t-s-u" are cut into the shining stainless face of a new 300-ton press, made in Japan.

New machinery has improved productivity. But sometimes, like in clothing and automobiles, vintage can be a company's niche. Huggins says the Navy's equipment specs are slow to change and Eaton is the producer of choice with years of experience fulfilling the military branch's needs.

Hoover and the plant's workers say they understand the competitive challenges facing their employer. That's why the 19-year punch press operator successfully advocated for IBEW to join Eaton's campaign against knockoff, counterfeit products, encouraging electricians in the field to scrutinize the circuit breakers they install for authenticity.

Hoover also volunteered to serve on the union's product identification team that spearheaded the "IBEW-Made" website to help promote Eaton's circuit breakers (Watch the IBEW's YouTube channel for our upcoming video on Eaton's fight against counterfeit circuit breakers:

"Workers here are engaged in the business, not just here to collect a paycheck," says Bechdel, the human resources manager. Their efforts are being recognized. A research project has been brought on site from another Eaton facility, putting 16 members to work, stoking hopes for the future.

Royal Dutch Shell is now planning a multi-billion dollar plant across the Ohio River from Beaver on the site of an abandoned zinc processing plant to process byproducts from natural gas. Beaver Local 712's Business Manager Frank Telesz expects 1,000 electricians to be working on site at peak construction alongside 9,000 other trades.

"Our sister local at Eaton is showing Shell that our area's workers have the work ethic and skills to justify their significant investment," says Telesz.


Eaton's Beaver, Pa., plant, opened 70 years ago to manufacture propellers for World War II fighter planes, now turns out best-in-class circuit breakers deployed in mines, naval vessels and other challenging environments.


'The union is adapting to change to keep a viable manufacturing plant here,' says Local 201 Business Manager Eric Hoover.

'We Work at Keeping Everyone Safe'

"T" Berry, Local 201's vice president, could be a symbol of the Eaton plant's durability. Fit and lean with a ripped upper body, the 67-year-old chemical and environmental specialist has been working in the plant for 48 years.

A native of nearby Midland, Berry is the son of a Crucible steelworker who labored as a "scarfer," cleaning up steel ingots with a torch, sucking up hazardous dusts.

Before he was hired and began progressing through a number of jobs in the circuit breaker plant, Berry was severely injured after hitching a ride in a car whose driver hit a telephone poll traveling 96 miles an hour.

Maybe those memories fuel his commitment to keeping his co-workers out of harm's way.

"We put a lot of work into keeping everyone safe," says Berry. He tests the pH value of water exiting the plant, operates forklifts to remove scrap metal and used lubricants and makes sure that everything from light bulbs to batteries are safely handled.

"I spend a lot of time listening to our members," he says. "I first got involved in the union because if you want to get anything done, you have to participate. I'm sick of hearing people complain, but not do anything [to better their situation]," says Berry, a lifetime member of the Beaver County NAACP who conducts walks and fundraisers to clean up blighted neighborhoods and convince leaders not to ignore conditions in minority areas.


T. Berry, Beaver Local 201's vice president, an environmental specialist, has been an active union member at Eaton's circuit breaker plant for 48 years.

Solar Farm Illuminates Work of Three Locals

The terraced parking lots on a hill behind Eaton's Beaver, Pa., circuit breaker plant hadn't seen cars for years. Weeds were sprouting through the cracked asphalt.

Two years ago, electricians from Beaver Local 712 helped capture the sun that was helping the weeds grow, installing Western Pennsylvania's largest solar energy array on Eaton's parking lots. The $5 million project, financed through state and private investment, provided a fresh training opportunity in solar photovoltaics for the local's apprentices.

But Local 712 members alone couldn't get the array's power into the plant, where it now supplies 25 percent of the power. That took high-voltage workers coming into town from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Local 1319.

"The 1.3 megawatt solar farm is a win-win-win," says Local 712 Business Manager Frank Telesz Jr. "Members of Local 201 made the circuit breakers; members of Local 712 installed the solar panels and Local 1319 linemen came in to make it all work. It shows the power of union members working together."

Eaton buys the generated electricity at a set rate governed by a 20-year purchase pact with Tangent Energy Solutions Inc. of Philadelphia, which owns the array.

An Eaton environmental specialist says that over the next 25 years, the solar array will lower greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 79 million pounds of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of pulling 238 cars from the road.

"We're pleased to see the products manufactured by our members helping to improve the environment and contribute to our plant's bottom line," says Local 201 Business Manager Eric Hoover.


Beaver, Pa., Local 712 members installed the plant's new on-site solar array, the biggest in the state, says Business Manager Frank Telesz Jr.