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April 8, 2014

Locked-out Penelec employees return to work

ALTOONA — After 20 weeks out of work, local Penelec employees that have been kept from their jobs since November are heading back next week.

FirstEnergy Corp., the parent company of Penelec, announced Monday afternoon that it lifted the employee lockout of 142 Utility Workers United of America Local 180 substation electricians, line workers, meter readers and clerical staff in Altoona, Bedford, Ebensburg, Huntingdon, Lewistown and Shippensburg.

Employees will return to their posts at 7 a.m. April 14.

“This is a victory for those that stood up to get a fair and just contract from this company,” said Bob Whalen, UWUA Local 102 president.

“The company, I don’t think, could figure out how to get themselves out of the pickle barrel,” he continued. “(The lockout is) costing the rate payers a lot of money, it’s costing the company a lot of money by having contractors and other people in there trying to do our work.”

FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner said the lockout was “mostly transparent” to all Altoona-area customers. Penelec supervisors filled in the vacant union shifts during the lockout, as per the company’s work continuation plan. Surgeoner added that no OSHA violations or vehicle accidents occurred during the lockout.

He said he did not know why the decision to recall Local 180 was handed down Monday.

The employees will be working under stipulations from the company’s Nov. 6 “last, best and final” contract offer. An official UWUA press release stated that the company’s implementation of those contract concessions was “unjust” and undermines fair labor standards.

According to an official FirstEnergy press release, the company’s final offer included wage increases, increases in shift premium schedules and meal allowances as well as a new job classification.

The union will likely seek legal action against the company for forcing a contract that workers never agreed upon, Whalen said. Lifting a lockout usually means both sides are at impasse, he added.

“We still feel we have a lot of room to move,” he said.

Whalen said the two sides are set to return to the bargaining table on April 14 and 15. Although the union refused to ratify the the company’s final deal because FirstEnergy wasn’t budging on the issue of discontinued retiree health care benefits, Surgeoner was adamant that concession won’t be in the cards.

“Retiree health care is an issue that we as a company have remained very consistent with through the start of negotiations with Local UWUA 180,” he said. “The company will no longer subsidize health care benefits.”

Although an agreeable contract still needs to materialize, Whalen said getting UWUA Local 180 back to work is a step in the right direction.

“We think that our customers will get much better customer service than they’ve been getting since Thanksgiving.”

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

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