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Utility Workers examine Mon Power’s purchase of Harrison

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What will be the effect on workers if Mon Power takes full ownership of the Harrison power station?

The Utility Workers Union of America and its Local 304 want to know.

"It may be that this is a really far-sighted, well intentioned structural change for everybody and if it is, that's great," said UWUA general counsel Samuel McKnight of Mon Power's billion-dollar proposal to buy most of the Harrison coal-fired power station. "We would applaud that. But we're going to look hard at it."

Mon Power currently owns about 20 percent of Harrison. It filed its proposal with the Public Service Commission of West Virginia in November to meet a generation shortfall by buying the 80 percent it does not own of the Harrison power station from sister FirstEnergy utility Allegheny Energy Supply Co.

The UWUA represents the 160 or so production workers at the plant, of about 220 employees total, and is participating as an intervenor in the case.

For the most part, the union's first request for information in the case seeks documentation of assertions Mon Power made in its proposal: that the acquisition of Harrison will provide a hedge against market-price risk, for example, or that the Harrison plant is an "excellent facility."

The union also wants to be sure the change will be good for employees — the only reference to which in Mon Power's filing states that the transition will be "seamless and imperceptible" to employees.

"We don't know if that means seamlessly good or seamlessly bad," McKnight said. "We don't know what the needs will be, what the staffing will be, whether they are planning on reducing staffing, whether they're planning on importing new workers."

The union's filing may reflect some strain in the relationship between the union and FirstEnergy.

The Local 304 was formed in October 2010, when the owner of the Harrison plant was FirstEnergy predecessor Allegheny Energy.

FirstEnergy took over soon after. Yet, two years later, "there's no contract," McKnight said. "Bargaining broke down."

Charges are pending with the National Labor Relations Board over bargaining conduct and corporate changes that he said "inflicted some significant economic damage on unionized employees."

Beyond being sure the transaction will be good for Harrison's workers, the union also wants to be sure it will be good for ratepayers, McKnight said.

"We've taken a look at a variety of regulated and partially regulated utility transactions, and we find on occasion that some of these are plainly not in the interest of the communities we serve — where it's going to result in unwarranted price increases, where it's going to provide diminished reliability or diminished service and that's not what we stand for," he said.

So far, the union is just learning about the proposed transaction.

"I'm not in a position to say these are unreasonable prices, I'm not in a position to say it's going to reduce reliability," McKnight said. "All I can say right now is we're going to take a really, really hard look at this. We see our interests as completely compatible with the communities we serve, and we're going to protect both."

Such an issue can be complex for union members and among unions.

As of Jan. 7, 38 employees, some of them Local 304 members, have filed form letters of support for the transaction. Those letters were provided to employees by company leadership.

McKnight said that puts employees on a "tremendous spot."

In addition, Mon Power filed with the commission a letter of support written by another union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

"We recognize the importance of (Mon Power) acquiring full ownership of the Harrison generating station, a proven West Virginia asset, using West Virginia coal and employing West Virginia residents," the IBEW letter reads.

"I think it was premature," McKnight said, expressing disappointment. "We don't believe that any of us are in a position to make an informed judgment."

Nothing in any of the filings addresses how the future operation of the Harrison plant might be different under continued shared AES-Mon Power ownership from under sole ownership by Mon Power.

Case documents may be seen at www.psc.state.wv.us; to follow the case, subscribe to case number 12-1571.