FirstEnergy Corp.was planning to lock out members of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 180 at 7 a.m. today after the union rejected what the company called "our last, best and final offer" of a new contract.
The lockout will apply to 142 linemen, meter readers, substation electricians and clerks in "line shops" in Altoona, Ebensburg, Bedford, Huntingdon, Lewistown and Shippensburg, according to FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner.
The rejection was "overwhelming," said UWUA President Bob Whalen.
It sends a "clear message" that the unionists are unhappy about the company's attempt "to take away benefits" - mainly retiree healthcare by the end of 2014, he said.
That is especially "despicable," because the company recently extended retiree healthcare benefits to a 1,300-member union group in Ohio through 2017, Whalen said.
"Why are they trying to punish the Pennsylvania workers?" he asked. "I have no idea."
The company is also trying to move away from the current defined benefit pension plan to a "cash balance" defined contribution plan that would reduce company liability, according to Whalen.
The Local 180 unionists haven't been asked to accept any changes that "we haven't asked of all 15,000" FirstEnergy employees, Surgeoner said.
As for the alleged extension granted to the Ohio group, he said, "I'm not familiar with the labor contracts of all 21" company unions.
None of the Local 180 workers are affected by the cash-balance pension plan, which applies only to workers hired after 2008 or 2009, Surgeoner said.
The company will use management and contract employees to do the work the unionists normally do, according to Surgeoner.
The company is locking out the Local 180 workers because their leaders haven't "demonstrated the same level of commitment to reach an agreement that the company has" on a contract that expired August, three months after renewal talks began, Surgeoner said.
"We want to settle," Surgeoner stated.
"We want to work," Whalen said. "[But] they want to dictate to us."
The company has informed all the unionists by letters sent to their homes that they may not work today if their group rejects the contract, Surgeoner said.
The unionists plan to show up today on time, Whalen said.
"We will not storm the gates," he said. "We will ask respectfully to go to work."
If the company turns them away, "it's on the company," he said.
There will be protesting, but "it will be done in a respectful, legal and professional way," he said.
The workers who will be replacing the unionists can handle the situation - though not as efficiently - if no major problems occur, Whalen said.
But they won't be able to handle a storm or major outage because they lack knowledge of the territory and "the switching points and how to work around" problem areas, he said.
The contract employees are more used to new construction work and most of the management employees - former linemen - are out of practice, he said.
Surgeoner declined to discuss security measures, but on Sunday evening, a group of four men in a vehicle positioned just within the entrance of the Penelec building on Plank Road met a reporter as he drove onto the property.
At least one wore a cap labeled "Special Response Corp.," a Hunt Valley, Md., firm whose website advertised expertise "in providing security for work stoppages, natural disasters and other needs."