Union files unfair labor charges

Utility Workers Union of America Local 180 believes a FirstEnergy lockout against workers is illegal because of management’s bargaining tactics and has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

“Those charges are under active investigation by the NLRB regional staff in Pittsburgh,” said Mark Brooks, UWUA special counsel to the president. “It is irresponsible for Penelec and FirstEnergy to risk reliable electric service for its customers by locking out more than 140 skilled utility workers during the current harsh winter weather conditions. We urge management to end the lockout now and to continue negotiations for a fair labor agreement.”

FirstEnergy’s legal department has not seen the formal complaint as filed and is unable to comment on its allegations, said Christopher Eck, a senior communications representative.

FirstEnergy locked out about 140 line, substation, clerk and meter services employees in the

Altoona, Lewistown and Shippensburg areas on Nov. 25 after the union rejected the company’s final contract offer.

Lockouts can continue indefinitely.

“It is an option not used very often. It is permitted as an economic pressure a company can place on workers,” said attorney David Andrews of Andrews & Beard, Altoona, an expert in labor law. “In my 36 years as a labor attorney, I have never used that with a company I represent.”

FirstEnergy officials said it was not an easy decision to lock out the workers.

“FirstEnergy began negotiations with Local 180 in May 2013 to reach a new agreement to replace the contract that would expire on Aug. 31. The company continued to bargain in good faith with the union in the months after the contract expired. A lockout is not something we take lightly at FirstEnergy and is not how we like to do business,” said Todd Schneider, director of external communications.

Company officials and union representatives have met several times with a federal mediator, but no progress has been reported.

During the lockout, FirstEnergy has been using management staff, employees from other FirstEnergy companies and contractors to provide service to customers.

During a lockout, the company is not permitted to hire permanent replacements.

“When a lockout occurs, the locking out party is not allowed to hire permanent workers. We can hire temporary workers, but once the membership ratifies the contract and comes back, they would be let go. You can’t terminate employees that are locked out and replace them permanently,” said FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner.

The locked-out workers are eligible for unemployment compensation and health insurance.

“The state of Pennsylvania pays unemployment benefits to workers through the state’s unemployment fund, which is financed by payroll taxes paid by all employers operating in the state,” Schneider said. “FirstEnergy has offered employees health care insurance through COBRA as required by law. In accordance with the law, the premiums for COBRA are paid by employees who elect to continue coverage.”

No talks are scheduled, and company officials are holding their ground.

“Our position has not changed. What we want is the union leadership to allow the 142 members to vote on the last best final offer. We believe it is a very fair contract and believe it is certainly worth accepting by the membership,” Surgeoner said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.