FirstEnergy planning lockout of union

FirstEnergy Corp. plans to lock out members of Utility Workers Union of America Local 180 on Monday unless the membership approves a new contract.

Local 180 represents about 140 Penelec workers – lineworkers, substation employees, clerks and meter readers – in Altoona, Bedford, Ebensburg, Huntingdon, Lewistown and Shippensburg.

Union members have been working without a contract since their old contract expired Aug. 31.

FirstEnergy made what it calls a “last, best and final offer” on Nov. 6, which included a wage increase of 8 percent over three years, increases in shift premiums and meal allowances and minor operational issues, such as a new job classification intended to increase customer service and efficiency, said Dave Karafa, FirstEnergy president of Pennsylvania operations.

FirstEnergy notified Local 180 leadership on Wednesday that the union members would be locked out beginning Monday if they didn’t ratify that offer by 6 p.m. Sunday, Karafa said.

UWUA President Bob Whalen said Local 180 had been making very good progress in negotiating a contract with local Penelec leaders, when FirstEnergy corporate leaders in Akron, Ohio, became involved.

He believes FirstEnergy is using Local 180 to put pressure on a larger sister union, System 102.

“It wasn’t the local management group that wanted to do this, I believe,” Whalen said.

Whalen said union leaders have not decided whether to put the company’s proposal up for a vote.

If a lockout occurs, FirstEnergy will use management staff, employees from other FirstEnergy companies and contractors to provide service to customers, Karafa said.

Whalen said it’s sad FirstEnergy is doing this to the local workforce and most importantly to the customers and ratepayers of the Altoona area. He also expressed concern about the impact of a lockout on the amount of time it will take to get power restored and the safety of the managers, who will have to take

over the union members’ tasks.

Whalen said among the sticking points is FirstEnergy’s push to stop all payments toward retiree health care for Local 180, which would affect 55 people in the Altoona area, even though it has signed a contract with another union in the Cleveland area that extends those supplements to 2017.

The amount FirstEnergy contributes to retiree health care is based on years of service and the age of the person at retirement.

He added the company also has proposed a new pension plan for new hires starting in 2014, but it cannot provide the union with the plan documents because they don’t exist.

“We have to understand what we’re voting on,” Whalen said.

One of the union members conducting an informational picket Wednesday outside Penelec’s Altoona office said “all we want is a fair negotiated contract.”

FirstEnergy is not happy about calling for the lockout, Karafa said.

“We have never called a lockout in the history of FirstEnergy. This is a first,” Karafa said. “While a lockout is not something we take lightly at FirstEnergy, we do not believe that Local 180 has demonstrated the same level of commitment to reaching an agreement as the company, and we encourage Local 180 leadership to allow its members to vote on the last, best and final offer to bring this issue to a successful closure.”