MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- At least 200 union workers picketed FirstEnergy's annual shareholders meeting in West Virginia on Tuesday, demanding the Ohio-based utility hire enough people to keep the power on without forcing an ever-shrinking labor force to work as many as 1,800 hours of overtime a year.
Chuck Cookson, FirstEnergy executive director of labor relations and safety, said the company is offering an 8.5 percent wage increase over four years as part of the ongoing negotiations for a new contract, but it must have more flexible work rules in exchange so it can respond quickly to outages.
"We provide electric service 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said, "and we need and require an appropriate response from our employees when we need them."
But Bob Whelan, president of Local 102 of the Utility Workers Union of America, said the number of employees has dropped steadily since 1996, with a 40 percent reduction in the number of linemen, the workers who reset power poles, string lines and restore service after accidents and storms.
Other groups have been hit as hard or worse, Whelan said, including garage mechanics who keep bucket trucks working.
Protesters with Locals 102 and 304 erected a 12-foot inflatable rat outside the Waterfront Place hotel in Morgantown, where they were joined by United Steelworkers and United Mine Workers members.
Also protesting were environmental and consumer groups angry over the proposed $1.1 billion sale of a power plant between two FirstEnergy subsidiaries. For West Virginia, it was a rare coalescing of labor and environmental groups, which are often at odds over coal.
"This whole sidewalk should be full, there's so many common issues," said John Christensen, vice president of the Eastern Panhandle Labor Council. He traveled from Martinsburg to show solidarity on several issues, including the reduction of FirstEnergy's workforce. "Cutting the workers is indescribable."
Critics say the power plant deal the West Virginia Public Service Commission is considering is overvalued, concentrates too heavily on coal and would unfairly raise rates for consumers. FirstEnergy calls it "a reasonable price for protection" against the more expensive option of buying electricity on the spot market to meet West Virginia's demand.
FirstEnergy's contracts with the two locals expired April 30, but members are working under their previous terms while a new agreement is negotiated.