FirstEnergy Corp. began its first day of a lockout of 142 union employees in central Pennsylvania on Monday.
The lockout is believed to be the first in history for both FirstEnergy and the former Allegheny Energy, which FirstEnergy bought in 2011, officials with the company and union said.
Managers and supervisors took over the duties of the union employees at the company called Penelec, which has been without a contract since Aug. 31. The union had a Sunday deadline to accept what was called a “last, best offer” from Akron-based FirstEnergy.
Workers overwhelmingly rejected a contract that was essentially still that offer with some language clarifications, said Bob Whalen, president of the Utility Workers of America System Local 102, part of another local called 180. The union represents line and substation workers, meter readers, technicians and other employees serving the areas of Altoona, Huntington, Lewistown and Shippensburg, Pa. Whalen said the negotiating team took a neutral stance on the offer when presenting it to the members.
“We all approached the gates at our normal starting point and they had security people greet us and told us we were trespassers. We retreated to where we were allowed to be and have notified the public through various picket signs,” said Whalen.
Some workers on Monday began the process for filing for unemployment, though they were told it would take a week to process, so they will give up one week’s pay, said Whalen.
Whalen said the company reportedly told the union it would meet with the negotiating team “if we have a change in our position, but we are willing to meet with them to negotiate if there’s a significant difference.”
The company says it is not asking for major changes. It said the offer included an 8 percent raise over three years. The union says the company wants to stop payments toward retiree health benefits, which would affect 55 workers, and institute a new scheduling program that it opposes.
In a news release, Dave Karafa, president of Pennsylvania Operations of FirstEnergy, said: “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. We were hopeful Local 180 members would ratify this contract proposal, which includes wage increases and benefits similar to other FirstEnergy utility union employees.”
Whalen said the lockout makes no sense since the union was not threatening a strike and was not close to an impasse.
“This is a waste of ratepayers’ money,” he said.
The union is also worried about an upcoming ice storm that was forecast to be headed to the area.
“It will be very, very disturbing to us to watch our customers without lights on for an extended period of time. They’ve got people here who don’t know what they’re doing,” said Whalen.
FirstEnergy officials said managers and supervisors with previous experience are in position and the company can request aid from other utilities if a storm requires more workers.
Whalen said he highly doubts that any unionized workers would respond to the mutual aid call to cross a picket line, including members of his Local 102, which is closest to the area. Most contracts have a clause that does not require workers to respond to mutual aid in cases of a labor dispute. However, Whalen said if his unionized workers in other areas are required by the company to respond to the mutual aid call, the union would not tell their workers to disobey their employer and face disciplinary action. But he added, if the worker was told to cross the picket line, it would be the company violating the contract.
Whalen speculated that if FirstEnergy calls for mutual aid, the utility would most likely call nonunion workers.
In an interview Monday, when asked about the lockout, FirstEnergy President and Chief Executive Officer Tony Alexander said: “We’ve had long negotiations with the union and we’ve put our best offer on the table. At one point, they’ve now decided that offer is not adequate from their perspective, even though it’s essentially the same as all other employees in the company. It contains substantial wage increases and would have allowed us the flexibility to provide better service to our customers. At the end of the day, we will have to work through the issues with the union and ultimately come to a conclusion.”
Whalen said the union does not understand why FirstEnergy wants to take its retirees’ benefits when a Cleveland-area FirstEnergy union was able to keep them.
Alexander said there are differences in every contract, but that “most employees ultimately will not have retiree health-care benefits. It’s just a question of how it works through the negotiating process.
“We’re not treating them, in effect, any differently than all other employees. While there are some things that can be settled at the table, they still need to be negotiated through and there’s always a plus and a minus when you’re negotiating for terms of that nature,” Alexander said.