Union protests Penelec lockout, loss of retiree healthcare

LEWISTOWN – When members of the local Utility Workers Union of America went to work at Penelec Monday morning, they found themselves barred from the employee parking lot by a backhoe. Instead of working the line, as some of them have done for 35 or more years, they took up signs and began demonstrating outside the Lewistown Penelec facility.

“I’ve been here since 6:30 this morning and we have had no response from the company,” said Bernie LaBelle, national representative for the UWUA. “The lockout was expected, but we feel it’s illegal because we are still open to negotiations.”

First Energy, the parent company of Penelec, and UWUA Local 180 have been negotiating since July. On Sunday night, the members of Local 180, representing 140 Pennsylvania workers, rejected First Energy’s “last, best and final contract” offer.

After making a number of concessions, union members said they drew the line at losing retiree health care benefits for current and future First Energy retirees, said David Bilek, union member.

“Retiree health care is as basic as it gets,” Bilek said. “People have dedicated their working lives and careers to the company. We are here to work, we want to work, but they won’t let us during negotiations.”

Many of the employees demonstrating Monday, LaBelle said, have family members who will be immediately affected by the health care withdrawal, but it will also affect current employees one day if the contract is approved.

“These people are dedicated to their jobs, but we’ll be out here for as long as it takes,” LaBelle said. “We remain open to negotiations.”

Scott Surgeoner, First Energy spokesperson, said the company has actually been informing current retirees since 2009 about the pending health care withdrawal. Changes are set to take effect in December 2014, he said.

“The change in health care is in response to the Affordable Care Act,” Surgeoner said. “Once employees retiree, they’ll be purchasing health care through the health insurance market place. We’re not asking anything of (Local) 180 that other union employees haven’t already agreed to.”

Since demonstrations began yesterday morning, First Energy has made leadership of Local 180 aware that it’s willing to meet and continue negotiations until meeting a fair and agreeable contract, Surgeoner said. In the meantime, the union positions are filled by workers from other areas within the company, he said.

“We will continue to deliver the quality service that our customers need and deserve,” Surgeoner said.