FirstEnergy is continuing a vicious lockout of 142 UWUA members at its Penelec utility in central Pennsylvania, even as winter storm systems sweep across the northeastern U.S., knocking out electric power for hundreds of thousands of families. The Akron, Ohio-based company locked out the members of UWUA Local 180 – a branch unit of System Local 102 – three days before Thanksgiving to try to coerce workers to accept massive concessions during ongoing contract negotiations. FirstEnergy is demanding similar concessions in healthcare and retirement security from nearly 1,000 other System Local 102 members across Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia at the company’s West Penn Power and Potomac Edison subsidiaries.
“It is inexcusable for FirstEnergy to keep skilled linemen and other utility workers out of their jobs performing essential public services during massive power outages – all for the sake of padding the corporation’s profits at the expense of public safety,” observed UWUA President Mike Langford.
FirstEnergy top brass suddenly ordered local management to lock out Penelec workers on November 25, even though the local union had consistently made clear its willingness to continue working while the parties try to hammer out a new agreement. The UWUA believes the lockout is part of a FirstEnergy scheme to pressure Local 102 to also accept painful cutbacks demanded by management for the larger unit.
Management has rejected numerous UWUA proposals that FirstEnergy should immediately return all locked out workers to their jobs to cope with regional power outages caused by harsh winter storms. In early February, for example, 849,000 people lost power in Pennsylvania alone as a result of Winter Storm Nika.
UWUA members know first-hand that winter ice and snow storms can severely strain electric power systems throughout an entire region, as power outages force utilities to scramble to find sufficient skilled workers to restore service.
“It is nothing short of reckless for FirstEnergy to keep nearly 150 skilled utility workers sidelined while hundreds of thousands of customers go without power during a winter storm,” declared System Local 102 President Bob Whalen. “Top executives in their corporate suites in Akron should place the public safety ahead of short-term profits by bringing Penelec employees back to work immediately.”
Management demands takeaways at three bargaining tables
The labor agreement at Penelec expired late last year, while the System Local 102 contract covering the four-state region is up for renewal at the end of April 2014. Meanwhile, UWUA members are also battling against FirstEnergy demands for cutbacks in West Virginia, as the members of Local 304 continue negotiations for a fair union contract at the company’s Harrison Power Station near Shinnston.
Workers there have voted for UWUA representation twice since their first NLRB election victory in October 2010. Although negotiations in Harrison are slowly progressing, Local 304 still hasn’t reached a first contract because of management demands for unfair concessions.
The UWUA is challenging management’s bad faith bargaining tactics through charges pending before the National Labor Relations Board covering all three locations – the Harrison plant, the Penelec lockout, and also concerning the larger unit at System Local 102.
Campaign for Justice
The UWUA is not standing by idly as FirstEnergy inflicts pain on utility workers to extract unfair concessions from working families. The locked out Penelec workers have been carrying the fight to the doorsteps of top corporate executives, and have also rallied local elected officials, consumers, and members of other unions to stand with the UWUA in its fight against FirstEnergy corporate greed.
Meanwhile, the UWUA National Union has issued a call for UWUA locals, members, and other national and international unions to make financial contributions to help sustain the locked out workers’ determination to defeat FirstEnergy’s outrageous concession demands.
“These locked out UWUA workers are on the frontlines of the battle against corporate America’s assault on working families, and they deserve our full support,” declares UWUA National President Langford. “This company made a serious miscalculation when it launched these unjustified attacks on UWUA members. Our entire union is committed to standing with FirstEnergy workers for as long as it takes to win justice.”
UWUA Files Complaints Challenging FirstEnergy Customer Service Violations
UWUA System Local 102 filed complaints on February 4 with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission challenging the failure of two FirstEnergy companies in the state to properly read customers’ meters.
The union’s complaints charge that West Penn Power and Penelec have engaged in “serious, repeated, and apparently willful violations” of the Commission’s regulations by failing to read customers’ meters at least once every two months, and attributes the problem in part to inadequate staffing levels at the two companies.
The UWUA discovered the violations during a review of the companies’ billing practices, which revealed that numerous customers have gone for up to five months or longer with consecutive estimated bills. PUC regulations require actual readings at least every other month as a consumer protection measure.
Protecting the Public
“Utility workers take seriously our responsibility to serve the public,” declared Robert Whalen, president of System Local 102. “We have filed these complaints to make certain FirstEnergy complies with all regulations designed to protect the public interest, and also to defend the interests of UWUA members who deliver essential services to the public every day.”
The UWUA represents 900 utility workers at the two companies, including meter readers at both utilities, in addition to another 2,300 FirstEnergy employees in Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. The Pennsylvania complaints request that the Commission order West Penn Power and Penelec to hire a sufficient number of meter readers and other staff to enable the companies to comply with the state regulations.
The case also raises the prospect of large fines against the two companies, since the PUC can assess a civil penalty of up to $1,000 for every violation it finds over the past three years. West Penn Power and Penelec provide electric utility services for a combined population of nearly 3 million people throughout central, northern, and western Pennsylvania.