PITTSBURGH - It was just after sunrise only three days before Thanksgiving, that security guards clamped locks on the gates at FirstEnergy in central Pennsylvania, barring 150 workers from their jobs. The company took out the chains and wrapped them around the gates, the workers say, in order to wrest from them massive concessions in retirement benefits, retiree health care and working conditions.
"They got what was our last, best and final offer," said FirstEnergy spokesman Scott Surgeoner, after the lockout that is keeping workers at home and hurting the economies of many Pennsylvania towns, including Altoona, Bedford, Edensburg, Huntingdon, Lewistown and Shippensberg.
"They did nothing but bargain in bad faith, intending all along to lock us out," said D. Michael Langford, president of the Utility Workers Union of America, which represents the workers. The union is asking that peoplesworld.org readers, along with everyone else, send messages to FirstEnergy's top executives, demanding an end to the lockout.
Workers have thrown up picket lines and have attracted support from people in the towns. "This is something out of a Christmas Carol by Dickens," said Camillo Santo, a community supporter. "The bosses showed no mercy, even during the Christmas season. The workers' families have faced rough sledding because of this and continue to do so. The bosses want to bust the union and replace these brave workers."
The support extends not just through the local towns and throughout the 13 million member AFL-CIO but into the councils of international labor unions as well. IndustriALL, which represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors and Public Services International, which represents more than 20 million workers in 650 unions in 48 countries, have rallied behind the locked out workers. They have sent statements to Alexander and Cavalier, demanding an end to the lockout.
The lockout is not the first time FirstEnergy has been in the news. It is the company that actually caused the massive blackout in the Northeastern part of the country back in 2003.
It was a FirstEnergy transmission line failure in Ohio that triggered the massive blackout that the union says happened because the company took advantage of lax regulations during the Bush administration.
"Utility giants had the approach of keeping all systems running until they actually break down and this was the way they treated wiring, poles, transformers and substations," explained Donald Wrightman who was union president in 2003. "Meanwhile, the workforce is slashed to the bone and replacement parts are not kept in supply."
Bob Fronek, president of the UMWA Local 270 in Cleveland, said that, in preparation for deregulation during those Bush years, "Utility companies slashed their workforces by a third or more, ramping up for deregulation."
Unions say that both the lockouts and the blackouts should surprise no one. And more, not fewer skilled workers are needed, they say to rebuild the entire energy infrastructure.
Prior to the lockout, FirstEnergy had already announced last summer that it was closing several Pennsylvania power plants. The union stepped in to try to stop the closure by complaining to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The Blue Green Alliance, a joint union-environmental group backed the union and sent its own letter to the commission.
The letters expressed concern, of course, about the fate of workers but also said consumers "deserve assurance" that the firm's closure of the plants "will not artificially inflate prices or harm reliability" of electricity in the area.
Langford is again reminding consumers of the links between FirstEnergy's attacks on workers and its dismal history of disastrous customer service: "It was only in 2003 that failures in FirstEnergy's transmission and generation systems cascaded out of control, quickly forcing 256 power plants throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada offline and triggering a blackout for 50 million people," he said.
A joint U.S.- Canadian taskforce had found longstanding institutional failures and weaknesses by FirstEnergy to be the cause of the power failure, one of the largest in history anywhere in the world.