By Betty Lin-Fisher
MORGANTOWN, W.VA.: FirstEnergy Corp.’s annual meeting lasted six more minutes this year than last. But it was still short.
Officials of the electricity giant and parent of Ohio Edison appeared before shareholders for 16 minutes, and the event included no remarks by President and Chief Executive Officer Anthony J. Alexander.
The meeting, held at 8 a.m. at the Waterfront Place Hotel in Morgantown, W.Va., was the first time the Akron-based company held the event outside its hometown. The company said it wanted to allow the board of directors to see other parts of the utility’s territory and give workers and shareholders in a different area an opportunity to attend.
Chairman George Smart presided over the meeting in the hometown of West Virginia University. It was attended by about 75 people and included about 40 FirstEnergy corporate staff members, executives and board members. Last year’s meeting in Akron was attended by about 200, including many workers who walked from the nearby headquarters.
Attendees included several dozen union members, wearing brightly colored T-shirts and chanting, “We want a contract. When? Now” a few times as executives filed out of the room.
“That was a waste of time,” said Ruth Weller — a shareholder who drove an hour and a half from Wheeling, W.Va., with her friend, Joanna Gusta.
The women said they left their homes at 5:30 a.m. They wanted to hear from Alexander for the first time. They were shareholders of Allegheny Energy, which FirstEnergy bought in 2011 for $4.3 billion in stock and the assumption of $3.8 billion in debt.
“Usually they would try to paint a good picture of the company and be more personal,” said Gusta. “To me, they did not seem to project [a good image]. They put a lid on it.”
Outside the hotel, about 100 protesters, mostly FirstEnergy union members who say the company is not negotiating a new contract in good faith, stood near a large inflatable rat. It held a sign that said: “FirstEnergy we smell a rat!”
The workers gathered before 7 a.m. and were quiet for a while, but later chanted such things as, “Who’s disgusting? Tony.”
A worker with a bullhorn said: “Tony, you’re taking away our health care to make yourself rich. You’re trying to bust our unions.”
Local 102 of the Utility Workers Union of America represents about 1,100 workers of FirstEnergy’s Potomac Edison, West Penn Power and Allegheny Supply divisions. Workers who serve at the plant, on lines and on support staff, have been without a contract since the end of April.
Robert T. Whalen, president of Local 102, said, “We are all dismayed at the cuts FirstEnergy is trying to put into our contract.”
He said the company wants “complete control of benefits.”
Whalen said the company wants the union to agree that the company can at any time amend, change or discontinue benefits. It is the first contract being negotiated with FirstEnergy since the Allegheny merger, Whalen said.
After the meeting, FirstEnergy Executive Director of Labor Relations and Safety Chuck Cookson said the company is not asking to take away benefits, but funds the medical plans the union chooses and is proposing a change in the funding. Cookson said the company has notified the union that retirement medical benefits would remain until retirees turn 65 if employees retire before the end of 2015.
Cookson said that gives Local 102 workers time to adjust. The policy was announced companywide in 2011 and will take effect at the end of 2014, eliminating retiree benefits.
In an interview with the Beacon Journal before the annual meeting, Alexander said the protesters outside were “exercising their right to participate. It’s not that we don’t understand the issues or that we’re not trying to work through the negotiations with the unions, which we do with lots of other unions across our service area.”
Asked why remarks were not being made from the CEO to shareholders, Alexander said it was a business meeting and the agenda gave the board an opportunity for a facility tour.
Asked whether it was a lost opportunity to address shareholders in a new area of the company, Alexander said no.
“At this point, the amount of contact we have with shareholders through media events and webcasts provides them with far more than a 20-minute speech could,” he said.
There was no opportunity for questions and answers and like last year, attendees had to walk through metal detectors. Additionally, this year attendees had to check in to get a wristband.
Chairman Smart announced prior to the end of the meeting that the preliminary results of the shareholder voting showed passage of the re-election of board members, approval of an accounting firm and a resolution called “say on pay.”
The company’s proposal to change to a majority vote rule and five shareholder proposals all failed. No details were given on the votes.
After the meeting, Vineeta Anand, chief research analyst for the labor organization AFL-CIO, said the company probably didn’t immediately disclose vote results because “they are afraid to show how little support they got.” She introduced the shareholder proposal limiting executive retirement benefits.
“An open company would allow shareholders to ask questions. This company obviously doesn’t have an open culture,” she said.
Outside the hotel after the meeting, Bill Sterner, a national representative of the Utility Workers Union of America, said he could not believe that Alexander said “zero words.”
Sterner said there were employees inside and outside the meeting who took vacation days to come and hear from their president.
“It was very disrespectful for our employees here and shareholders to not at least get a word of recognition,” said Sterner.
Alexander said the company has identified other locations to have future annual meetings.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org.