Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) System Local 102 on Nov. 25 said it condemned the decision by FirstEnergy (NYSE:FE) and its subsidiary Pennsylvania Electric Company (Penelec) to lock out 150 workers in central Pennsylvania in order to impose what the union called “unfair concessions in benefits, working conditions and customer service standards.”
The company locked out the workers, including linemen and power station operators at company worksites in Altoona, Lewistown and Shippensburg on the morning of Nov. 25, the union said.
In a separate Nov. 25 statement, FirstEnergy said the action came after several unsuccessful negotiation sessions between the company and the union, adding that union members rejected the company’s Last, Best and Final Contract Offer (LBFO) on Nov. 24.
The LBFO contained a wage increase of 8% over the three-year life of the contract, increases in shift premiums and meal allowances, and additional operational improvements, including a new job classification intended to increase customer service and efficiency, the company said.
The union said it linked the lockout to FirstEnergy’s efforts to “extort” similar concessions from 1,000 other unionized utility workers at company subsidiaries across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia.
Branch 180 of UWUA System Local 102 has been “painstakingly” bargaining with Penelec managers since May. Despite the contract having expired, the union added, the negotiations are not at impasse and the union committee still awaits requested information from the company on certain proposals. System Local 102 has also been negotiating a separate collective agreement for the additional 1,000 workers at FirstEnergy’s West Penn Power and Potomac Edison, the union said.
In both sets of talks, the union charged, FirstEnergy has demanded elimination of retiree health coverage, an inferior pension plan for new hires, scheduling changes that will make it harder for utility crews to respond to emergency outages and other reductions in customer service standards.
The union further charged that FirstEnergy is demanding cuts in report time pay for workers called out for mandatory overtime.
In its statement, FirstEnergy noted that as part of its plan to ensure necessary Penelec work continues, employees from other areas of the company who have held line jobs previously, or those who have received training, will fill positions.
Penelec serves about 590,000 customers in 31 Pennsylvania counties, according to FirstEnergy.
Mark Brooks, special counsel to the UWUA president, told TransmissionHub on Nov. 25 that the union is “ready, willing and able” to negotiate with FirstEnergy at any time to resolve negotiations.
The parties have never been at any bargaining impasse, he said, adding, “[W]e believe that top management in Akron imposed this precipitous lockout even though negotiations were making progress at the local level in Pennsylvania.”
FirstEnergy, he charged, has refused to provide essential bargaining information necessary to allow the union to negotiate intelligently over management’s demands for new benefit and retirement plans.
“The UWUA condemns FirstEnergy’s conduct of trying to force workers into accepting its unfair contract demands by locking these families out of their jobs only three days before Thanksgiving,” Brooks said, adding that workers do not get paid during a lockout.
He also noted that it would be impossible to know how long the “unnecessary” lockout will last and that the union believes that FirstEnergy management should end it immediately.
FirstEnergy spokesperson Scott Surgeoner confirmed to TransmissionHub on Nov. 25 that union members are not paid by the company during a lockout.
Similar to Brooks, he noted, “It would be pure speculation on the length of the lockout – FirstEnergy does not speculate.”
Surgeoner said: “The company is available to meet any time and at any place to continue to work to an agreement that is fair to employees, the company and our customers. Currently, there [are] no ongoing negotiations, nor are any scheduled.”
UWUA System Local 102 President Bob Whalen said in the union’s statement that the lockout is unwarranted.
“The company chose the start of the holidays to throw dedicated workers off their jobs in order to intimidate both Penelec workers and 1,000 other FirstEnergy employees into accepting management’s outrageous concession demands,” he said.
He also said that despite modest pay raises offered, union members understand that cuts to pension and retiree medical benefits will have a lasting effect on their livelihoods and in their communities.
“Utility workers are also determined to defend provisions in our contracts that protect prompt and safe customer service, even while the company tries to undermine those standards,” Whalen said.
In the company’s statement, Dave Karafa, president, Pennsylvania Operations with FirstEnergy, said that providing safe and reliable service is a top priority at Penelec as the company focuses on minimizing any inconvenience its customers might experience as a result of the lockout.
“While a lockout is not something we take lightly at FirstEnergy, we do not believe Local 180 has demonstrated the same level of commitment to reaching an agreement as the company,” he said. “We were hopeful Local 180 members would ratify this contract proposal, which includes wage increases and benefits similar to other FirstEnergy utility union employees.”