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January 5, 2014

Union, company at odds

FirstEnergy disputes claim about benefits

ALTOONA — FirstEnergy Corp., which unprecedentedly locked out 142 local union workers in November, has denounced claims that it is giving a Cleveland-based union an unfair exception to its companywide cancellation of retiree health care benefits, which was announced in 2009.

Union leaders for Utility Workers United of America argue that the Local 270 union in Cleveland was given an extension on the benefit cancellations until 2017 – three years after the company planned to phase out those benefits for all other FirstEnergy employees.

Contract stipulation documents pertaining to Local 270’s 2006-2014 Collective Bargaining Agreement with the company, which were provided by union leaders, show that retiree benefits would continue up to April of this year. That contract was signed the same year FirstEnergy announced the cancellations.

An extension, which guaranteed those benefits until 2017, was signed on Aug. 5, 2013, just weeks before the contract expired for UWUA Local 180, which represents 142 line workers, meter readers, substation electricians and clerks in Altoona, Bedford, Ebensburg, Huntingdon, Lewistown and Shippensburg.

According to UWUA Local 102 President Bob Whalen, Local 180 members refused to ratify the company’s last, best and final contract offer by an “overwhelming” majority, instead choosing to be locked out of their jobs until they were granted the same extension as Local 270.

“Local 270 and Local 180 have the same retiree health care language in their contracts,” Whalen wrote in an email. “So much for fair treatment of all employees.”

But FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner said the union’s claim is a “categorically false accusation.”

From the company’s perspective, although it did grant a unique extension to Local 270, the circumstances surrounding it distance it greatly from Local 180’s current situation.

Surgeoner said that a handful of power plants in Local 270’s area were to be shuttered, a result of new and untenable regulations being enforced at those plants by the state Environmental Protection Agency.

“As we negotiated a new contract with 270 – due to the fact that there were plant closings and due to the fact that 150 people were going to be out of a job – we agreed to extend their retiree health care through 2017 in an effort to help those 150 members who were going to lose their jobs to determine their future path.

“The difference between that and what we’re doing with 180 and (all) other personnel at FirstEnergy (is) there are no power plants involved and no one at 180 is going to lose their job.”

According to Surgeoner, another meeting occurred between the company and union leadership Thursday.

He also said a letter was delivered to all Local 180 members expecting written confirmation that the union will ratify the company’s final contract offer by 11 a.m. on Jan. 10 and offering otherwise lost pay from the date the confirmation was received up to the ratification.

The company’s work continuation plan, which fills the locked out positions with managers, supervisors and outside contractors, is now in its seventh week, according to Surgeoner.

“The letter also made clear that the company is prepared to see this through,” he said.

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.

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