NLRB to hear complaint by union on power plant closings

April 30, 2014
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Bob Niedbala / Observer-Reporter
FirstEnergy Corp’s Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station on the banks of the Monongahela River Order a Print
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
FirstEnergy Corp.’s Mitchell Power Station in Union Township is one of two plants the company is closing in the Mon Valley. Order a Print

The National Labor Relations Board has issued a complaint charging FirstEnergy Corp. with unfair labor practices for allegedly refusing to bargain with the union in regard to the effects of the closings of the company’s Mitchell and Hatfield’s Ferry power stations.

The board brought the charges on behalf of Utility Workers Union of America, Local 102, which represents about 170 plant employees and claims the company refused to bargain certain issues regarding the closings unless the union accepted a new bargaining unit-wide labor contract.

FirstEnergy closed the two coal-fired power plants in October, citing the weak demand for electricity, low electricity prices and the costs of bringing the plants into compliance with environmental regulations.

FirstEnergy refused to bargain with the union over the effects of the plant closings unless the entire bargaining unit accepted a new labor agreement that included numerous concessions, said Bob Whelan, Local 102 president.

The company refused to enter “effects bargaining,” he said, on issues including severance benefits and the reassignment of workers at the two plants to other union positions within the company.

“These people had dedicated themselves to their work; when they were needed, they were always there, then they (FirstEnergy) threw them out in the street,” Whelan said. “FirstEnergy certainly is not an employee-friendly company,” he said.

Of the 170 union workers at the plants, only about 30 were able to “bump” into other positions within the company, but those positions paid less than half of what the workers were making in their previous positions, Whelan said. The company also refused to recognize the workers’ years of service or their skills, he said.

Concessions the company asked the union to accept included reduced medical benefits and the termination of employees’ post-retirement medical benefits. The company also inserted clauses allowing it to amend benefits at any time and assume complete control of scheduling, Whelan said.

The union has been negotiating a new contract with First Energy for the bargaining unit which includes about 700 workers in Pennsylvania Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia, and at the time of the plant closings, the previous contract was still in place, the union said.

The union said the contract expired Wednesday and its members will continue to work day-by-day under terms of the expired contract. The company maintains the contract expired a year earlier.

Among other issues, the complaint also charges that FirstEnergy failed to acknowledge the continuation of the contract in May 2013. The union maintains the contract by its terms had renewed for another year.

FirstEnergy spokesman Todd Meyers said the company presented the union with a proposal in October that did offer 142 job opportunities to plant employees as well as relocation benefits for those who accepted new jobs within the company if the union ratified a new contract by a certain date. The union, however, failed to approve the agreement.

The filing of the complaint by the NLRB is only the initial step in the process. The case will be heard by an administrative law judge and the company will have the opportunity to present its side, Meyers said. The company has bargained with the union in good faith and it believes the matter ultimately will be decided in the company’s favor, he said.

The NLRB has scheduled a hearing on the complaint for July 22 in Pittsburgh.

Bob Niedbala worked as a general assignment reporter for the newspaper for 27 years in the Greene County bureau. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pittsburgh.

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