Unions rally in support of Penelec workers

Penelec workers locked out of their jobs since Nov. 25 drew support Saturday morning during an outdoor rally where union representatives urged them not to give up.

“This is awesome,” Utility Workers Union of America Chapter President Ben Wilkinson of Local 102 said after he stepped on top of a plastic bin, making him high enough to see the crowd of 300 to 400 people.

“The solidarity in the city, in this area, is tremendous,” Wilkinson said. “And we’re all sticking together. You have no idea what it means to myself and all our members who are standing out there.”

The rally was staged in front of the Penelec building, next to Pleasant Valley Boulevard, where locked-out protesting employees have kept a daily presence for 65 days, with the use of a fire ring to stay warm during low temperatures.

Wilkinson said there was no movement at the last negotiating session on Jan. 14, echoing a description Scott Surgeoner of FirstEnergy Corp., Penelec’s parent company, previously provided to the Mirror.

FirstEnergy locked out 140 line, substation, clerk and meter service employees in the Altoona, Huntingdon, Lewistown and Shippensburg areas after they rejected what the company said

was its “last, best and final contract offer.”

While that offer included an 8 percent raise over the life of the contract, in addition to other financial and job-related benefits, union members said it also means an end to retiree health care benefits, and it will replace a defined benefit pension plan with a defined contribution plan.

“Brothers and sisters, your fight is our fight,” said Mickey Sgro, representing American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. “Council 83 and its 11,000 members will stand with you to the end of this thing. I guarantee that.”

“The nurses are all with you,” said Paula Stellabotte, a registered nurse and president of the SEIU Healthcare PA, currently negotiating with UPMC Altoona. “You’ve been with us. We’re going to stay with you. … I feel like we’re in the same boat.”

Art Martynuska, president of the Pennsylvania Professional Fire fighters Association, added his support.

“Ten thousand firefighters, paramedics and EMTs are behind you … to the end,” Martynuska said.

Some speakers, raising their voices at times to be heard over the horns of passing motorists, tied the labor dispute to what has been described as a national campaign against organized labor.

This isn’t just about the Penelec workers, said Jim Krug, former president of the Altoona Area Education Association and one of the Altoona Area and Hollidaysburg Area school district teachers at the rally.

“There is a well-orchestrated and well-funded effort going on in America,” Krug said. “… It’s the wealthy elite trying to restratify the wealth of this nation. … They view the unions as the last bastion of wealth and independence and solidarity, and they want to take that out.”

Other speakers included Central Labor Council President Bob Kutz, Seven Mountains Central Labor Council President Dan Long, machinist union member Bob Miller and Blair County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Rosenhoover.

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.