Business Manager Tony Sapienza
Schiller Station Closing Is The End of An Era
July 14, 2020 - The long-term and likely permanent closure of Schiller Station in Portsmouth last month not only marked the end of 70 years generating electricity for the Granite State, but it was the end of the bargaining unit that played a pivotal role in the history of IBEW Local #1837.
Local 1837 was first established at Schiller in 1953 as the framed charter hanging in the Union’s Dover office helps to memorialize. Richard Pray is credited with organizing the union at the power plant and his name is one of 24 on that historic charter document. Brother Pray would become Local 1837’s first Business Manager. Twenty years later in 1973, the International Union would consolidate 11 Locals representing electric utilities in New Hampshire and Maine but keep “1837” as the designation for all of them.
Schiller Station has been owned by Granite Shore Power since it was purchased from Eversource NH (formerly Public Service Company of New Hampshire) in January 2018. The purchase was part of the divestiture of Eversource NH’s generation assets mandated by the New Hampshire Legislature. Previous attempts to deregulate the utility were opposed by PSNH and union members joined the company in providing compelling testimony against the move. However, Eversource NH supported the 2018 divestiture plan and the Union negotiated to minimize any negative effects on members. GSP continues to operate Newington Station right next door to Schiller and Merrimack Station in Bow.
“GSP informed us this spring that they would begin an extended outage at Schiller in June with no end date and they have no intention of running it in the future,” IBEW 1837 Assistant Business Manager Tony Sapienza said. “They’ve laid off the entire workforce.”
A visitor to Schiller in early July found the gate on the chain link fence padlocked, a large pile of coal clearly visible in the yard, and just a couple of cars in the parking lot. The once proud and productive power plant on the Piscataqua River was eerily quiet, in stark contrast to the bustle and hum of seven decades of generating electricity by burning oil, coal, and more recently, wood chips and even cocoa shells. When operations began, the plant boasted about being "the world's first integrated mercury-steam power plant."
Although the plant used to run almost non-stop, in recent years Schiller mostly ran when demand was peaking and the ability of other generation stations was limited by the availability of natural gas. Schiller was dogged by controversy as environmentalists sought to shut it down. Ultimately, though, it was lower cost sources of power elsewhere and a loss of capacity payments that hastened its demise.
Schiller Station began operations in 1949 and was named after Avery R. Schiller, President of PSNH. Schiller was a Vice President when PSNH was formed in the late 20’s, was promoted to President in 1942, became Chairman in 1965, and retired in 1970 after 46 years with the Company.
Over the years, changes in technology and operations led to significant changes in staffing levels. Whereas Schiller Station once employed 150 people from its startup all the way into the late 80’s, by the time it closed in June there were only 38 workers at Schiller with 30 of them being union-represented positions. When they stopped running, there were three units with a combined total output of 155 MW
Tom Clements started work at Schiller in 1977 after a stint in Vietnam and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the crew from the early days of the plant. “It didn’t have the automation back then and each unit had about 10 people assigned to it and 5 shifts,” Brother Clements recalled. “(Working in operations) you would go in and make sure everything was running right. You made rounds every hour and would check the temperature on the turbine in 5 or 6 places.”
Although the binary mercury boilers had been retired before he started working there, some of the old timers would still recount stories about it.
“There was a time when people couldn’t keep in the fillings in their teeth because the mercury would attack the silver,” Clements said.
Maine Labor Historian and Activist Peter Kellman wasn’t in IBEW but as a member of IUPAT (Painters’ Union) he spent time working at Schiller in the early 80's and also heard stories about the mercury.
“Guys sat on blocks of mercury with their feet hanging over the edge and ate their lunch,” Brother Kellman said he was told. “People who worked there still saw mercury in the traps. There was also plenty of asbestos that OSHA termed ‘nuisance dust.’”
Becky Johnson was hired in 1987 right out of school in North Dakota and worked her way up to Control Room Operator, the top-paying union job in the plant. That’s where she stayed until Schiller ceased operations in June. As a single mother trying to find her way in the world, a good Union job at a major electric utility was her ticket to economic security. It was also an economic benefit for the surrounding community.
“It was a great place to work, it was a good strong union force” Sister Johnson said. “We made a lot of money for the companies. Schiller used to run all the time. We paid a lot of taxes.”
Tom Ryan started working there in 1990 as a Certified Welder Mechanic 3rd class and worked his way up to 1st class before leaving Schiller to become IBEW 1837 Assistant Business Manager. “It was a good place to work and people made good money there,” Ryan said. “It was dirty work but not as dirty as Merrimack. Schiller had a negative draft which would suck everything into the boiler. A lot of guys at Schiller came over from Merrimack.”
Over time, there were changes in responsibilities and shifts that affected workers in the bargaining unit.
“In the 90’s they moved to a 12-hour shift which was originally contentious but
ultimately proved popular,” Brother Ryan said. “They were trying to save jobs.”
Tom Clements remembers being told by one member: “I love working 3 – 11 shift because nobody bothers me when I get home.” Some Schiller employees worked two jobs at that time because they were 8-hour shifts.
Larry Lee started at Schiller in 1979 as a pump room trainee and worked his way through various equipment jobs and the control room before opting for a job in the warehouse. “Occasionally modifications were made in the various steps of the training process,” Lee said. “Also there were job reclassifications sometimes adding more work or combining steps which were previously separate or under a different job classification.”
In addition to employing hundreds of IBEW members during its years of service, Schiller Station employed many local workers and union members from various trades building and maintaining the power plant. IBEW 1837 always used its leverage to try to make sure unionized contractors were hired when outside expertise was necessary.
Of course, the top priority was always making sure members of IBEW 1837 were treated fairly and protected by the union contract. Perhaps the most sensational case was when a member was fired for taking lobsters from the plant water intake for personal use. Ultimately, the Union took the case to arbitration and was successful in getting his job back.
“Schiller was great and had lots of character and lots of good characters,” Sister Johnson continued. “It didn’t matter which company owned us, it was still a great place to work.”
Special thanks to Rebecca Johnson for providing archival materials for this story.