Tue., 8:35am: Protesters expected at FirstEnergy’s W.Va. meeting

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Union workers picketed FirstEnergy’s annual shareholder 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.

More than 100 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 of America members.

Also protesting were environmental and consumer groups angry over the proposed $1.1 billion sale of a power plant between two FirstEnergy subsidiaries.

Critics say the deal the state 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 hammered out.

Local 304 represents the 150 union employees at the Harrison Power station.

Local 102 includes more than 900 employees of West Penn Power, Potomac Edison and FirstEnergy Generation Corp., including line and substation workers, meter readers and technicians, and other physical and support employees.