Allegheny Electric workers man informational pickets
EAST FRANKLIN - Despite their frustration they say the last thing they want to do is go on strike. However, Allegheny Power employees are making known that they are more than unhappy with what they perceive as the company's refusal to bargain at the negotiation table.
More than two dozen members of AFL/CIO Local 102, Utility Workers Union of America, staged an informational picket at the intersection of Route 268 and old Route 28, across from the Franklin Village Mall, displaying yellow and black signs that read, (Allegheny Power) "Financially Sound, Morally Bankrupt," and "Equal Pay for Women."
According to Local 102 secretary/treasurer Joel Kellner, nearly 1,200 union workers in four states have worked without a contract since May 1 of 2001. However, he added that they have been working under a series of contract extensions since 1997.
"Money is always an issue," Kellner said, "but it is not a big issue in the current negotiating sessions."
Kellner said other issues are the cost of medical insurance, updating a 20-year-old pension plan, contract offers to new hires, equal pay for women and health concerns.
Local 102 Armstrong County president Dave Crawford said the company customarily gives a 2 ½ to 3-percent annual pay increase. However, he pointed out that recently the company increased the employee's share of medical insurance and co-pays.
"The medical insurance increase just about ate up our annual cost-of-living raise," he said.
According to Kellner, the company is also asking union workers to approve contract language that will terminate medical insurance coverage to new hires when they retire.
Equal pay for women is another big issue. Crawford said Allegheny Power wants to offer its women employees about one percent less of a raise than it offers male workers. He said male union members stand solidly behind the women in demanding an equal pay raise.
"It took 18 months of bargaining with the company just to allow women to join the union," he said. "Now the company wants to show them that they're not worth as much as the men are."
Employees are also concerned about health issues. Union president William Sterner said many coal plant workers are constantly exposed to fly ash, boiler leaks and asbestos.
Kellner compared the current situation with Allegheny Power to the recently announced ALLTEL pullout in Kittanning.
"The big companies just don't care," he said. "Look, the last thing we want to do is go on strike - that would hurt our customers. If we should strike, Allegheny Power said it would bring in contract workers from North Carolina. That's their answer to our pleas. We are a loyal and devoted work force. We're the guys who keep the lights on 24-7. We feel we care more about the customer than the company does.
Kellner said the number of cars driving by honking horns and waving a "thumbs up" in support of the union workers Thursday afternoon were an indication of support the workers have from the community.
Union officials and company negotiators were engaged in bargaining sessions late Thursday and are expected to resume negotiation today. However, one union worker expressed pessimism as to the outcome of the sessions by saying, "...this is the 37th negotiating session since last year. I doubt if we'll get anywhere soon."
Allegheny Power information officer Allen Staggers agreed that wages and benefits were an issue, but declined to elaborate further.
"What we're doing right now," Staggers said, "is having a federal negotiator involved in our negotiating sessions. We hope to arrive at mutually acceptable contract language. The union has agreed to give us a seven-day notice of any strike that may be called. We hope it doesn't come to that but if it does we're prepared to keep service to our customers going as normal. The only hitch may be in new service installations, but the lights will stay on."
Pointing to a sign that read "Financially Secure, Morally Bankrupt," Crawford said Allegheny Power reported record profits in the last three years.
"They had more than a $223 million net profit last year," he said. "They paid large bonuses to corporate executives and they offer us a 2 ½ to 3 percent pay increase but demand concessions in benefits. What more is there to say."