More than 140 Penelec workers in the area were locked out of their jobs at 7 a.m. Monday, after a contract offer from parent company FirstEnergy Corp. was rejected on Sunday by an “overwhelming” majority of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 180.
Union workers have been without a contract since Aug. 31. Although contract negotiations began in May, UWUA Local 102 President Bob Whalen said FirstEnergy has not made crucial concessions relating to pension plans, “ugly” scheduling practices and health benefits for retirees, causing workers to vote against ratification.
“I don’t think they want to talk with us unless we change our position and as of today, we have not,” Whalen said.
FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner said the company is willing to sit down with union leadership again, but part of the final offer was a request that the union ratify it before the 6 p.m. Sunday deadline.
“They have not shown the same level of commitment to ratifying that the company has,” he said.
Surgeoner said the lockout affects 142 line workers, substation electricians, meter readers and clerical personnel in Altoona, Ebensburg, Bedford, Lewistown, Huntingdon and Shippensburg.
Whalen said nearly all of those union members were present for the Sunday vote. He said they sent a “clear message” to union leaders that FirstEnergy’s final offering was unacceptable, instead choosing to be locked out one month before the Christmas holiday.
Whalen said the union has been working to retain health care benefits for Local 180 retirees. According to Surgeoner, FirstEnergy’s discontinuation of the benefits, which was announced in 2009 and will take effect at the end of 2014, is a company-wide action, affecting executives as well as union workers.
Whalen, however, told The Tribune-Democrat on Thursday that FirstEnergy recently signed an extension agreement for a Cleveland-based union of about 1,300 workers, continuing their health care supplement until 2017.
Whalen also said the company has not openly discussed impending changes to its pension plans with the Local 180.
“They expect us to accept whatever they’ll publish in January or February,” he said. “They want us to vote on something that doesn’t exist.”
According to Whalen, FirstEnergy is looking to redistribute line worker response vehicle staff, to maintain a state minimum that he thinks will hinder effectiveness and agreeable scheduling. Surgeoner said, however, the company has no plans to reduce or redistribute staff in any area and is even working to create a “troubleman” job classification.
Whalen said he’s uncertain how long it could take for Local 180 workers to get back on the job.
He added that there would likely be delays or hiccups in service, considering an impending ice storm in the region, and since the managerial and supervisor employees that fill in the locked out positions through FirstEnergy’s work continuation plan won’t be familiar with the territories or may be “rusty” on procedure.
Surgeoner said those employees all have field experience, and Penelec will also be supplementing service crews with outside contractors.
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.