Unions, ratepayers rally outside FirstEnergy shareholder meeting - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Unions, ratepayers rally outside FirstEnergy shareholder meeting

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Union members demonstrated with the utility workers' iconic rat during the morning commute in Morgantown. The workers protested outside FirstEnergy's annual shareholder meeting. Union members demonstrated with the utility workers' iconic rat during the morning commute in Morgantown. The workers protested outside FirstEnergy's annual shareholder meeting.
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MORGANTOWN, WV -

FirstEnergy's May 21 annual shareholder meeting in Morgantown took just 17 minutes, but protests outside the meeting lasted a couple of hours.

Inside the Waterfront Place Hotel, participants ran through summaries of several proxy items related to executive compensation and corporate governance. Votes were collected and preliminary results were announced. Adjourned.

Outside, protesters had begun rallying more than an hour before the meeting.

Members of the Utility Workers Union of America Local 102 and Local 304 rallied under the union's iconic giant, inflatable rat and were joined by members of the United Steelworkers, United Mineworkers of America and West Virginia AFL-CIO — perhaps 200 to 300 in total.

Negotiations between FirstEnergy and the Local 102, which represents more than 900 employees of subsidiaries West Penn Power, Potomac Edison and FirstEnergy Generation Corp., began in March but failed. The contract expired on April 30.

The company is offering wage increases of 8.5 percent over the term of a four-year contract as well as participation in an incentive compensation program that can add 6 percent to straight-time earnings and a change in health care subsidy that aligns it with other company union contracts, according to Chuck Colson, FirstEnergy executive director of labor relations and safety.

The company seeks changes that Cookson said would improve productivity and give greater flexibility in scheduling.

Local 102 President Bob Whalen has said that the number of employees has declined over the past decade and, at the same time, the company is putting practices in place that increase outage time.

Involving fewer FirstEnergy employees but more West Virginians, Local 304, which represents about 150 workers at the Harrison power station near Clarksburg and which formed not long before FirstEnergy acquired Allegheny Energy in 2011, demonstrated also.

The Local 304 won concessions in March in a dispute over unfair labor practices that included $1.25 million in back pay, a 6 percent pay increase and restoration and improvement of certain benefits.

The 304 has never had a contract.

Cookson said the company has meetings scheduled with both locals later this month.

Gathered with the union members were demonstrators opposed to Mon Power's proposed purchase of the Harrison power station.

The company has said the billion-dollar purchase of the coal-fired Harrison plant is the best solution for meeting growing customer demand; opponents of the proposal say the plant is overvalued and that the company should, rather, diversify away from near total dependence on coal and invest in energy efficiency.

An evidentiary hearing on the proposal will take place before the Public Service Commission of West Virginia next week.

It was the first time FirstEnergy held its annual shareholder meeting away from its Akron, Ohio, headquarters.

At the end of the meeting, the company reported "pass-fail" outcomes of the vote. All directors were re-elected and management's "say-on-pay" proposal passed, and shareholder proposals on executive compensation and corporate governance failed. 

Commenting afterward, UWUA attorney Mark Brooks noted that FirstEnergy released vote outcomes but not preliminary vote totals at the end of the meeting.

"The company's failure to release the preliminary votes – contrary to its practice in previous years – means that shareholders will have to wait until FirstEnergy discloses the final vote tally with the SEC in order to measure the extent of investor discontent with the company's executive pay practices," Brooks said.