Why California needs a public utility option — but not prisoner futility
Wednesday, February 05, 2020
When universal values of dignified workplaces cautiously attending to dwindling resources are contemplated in the U.S., minds often wander to the Golden State. But not so fast. Northern California’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 1245 union opposes new legislation, Senate Bill 917, to turn bankrupt PG&E into a public utility— harkening back to yesteryear’s spotted owl vs. logger debates regarding old growth forests.
The term “labor power” takes on new meaning to survive these divisive times; labor clashes with the environment again.
Will workers, rural residents, and wildfire victims’ needs be sacrificed as the fifth largest economy in the world decides how to battle a wildfire epidemic and climate change fallout? Can the state honor union contracts and worker, including prisoner, needs? Read on.
The legislation, proposed by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), addresses a sorely needed company takeover in a state overwhelmed by climate change-exacerbating wildfire damages. PG&E, now hedge fund-controlled, owes court-ordered billions in damages to victims, with more cases pending.
Both sides in this utility battle conjure images of overworked families. In a state with exorbitant housing prices and notorious prisons, who’s not struggling with a minimum wage working its way to $15 per hour by 2023?
One side targets PG&E’s corruption, and the other side defends PG&E with a different proletarian vision: union members who want guaranteed jobs and fully promised pensions.
Wiener’s proposal may not be the only public option brewing, and it's worth considering many public utilities proposals, but let’s surpass the IBEW 1245 position here. It may be time for the union to get out of public option-busting once and for all.
Since 1905, PG&E workers have been unionized. The 12,000-member IBEW 1245 protested against Wiener’s proposal, which would “require the state to begin purchasing all PG&E shares, which would then be transferred to a publicly owned utility, the Northern California Energy District.” This model is based on New York’s Long Island Power Authority.
Is it the exact public utilities option for a state in the grips of social ecological crisis? Maybe or maybe not. But labor needs to be on board here, providing sorely needed solidarity for climate chaos — past, present, and future.
This national union-busting climate has IBEW members carrying signs that read: “Wiener don’t touch my pension” and “Uniting to protect my job security.”
Wiener addressed workers: “PG&E workers will be transitioned over to the new entity and collective bargaining agreements, benefits, wages, and retirements. These workers have been doing their job under the worst of circumstances and they should be protected.”
Beyond sloganeering, the union’s press statement identifies major grievances with SB 917. Before this statement is dismissed as self-interested, labor’s legitimate fears recall the perfect slogan for the days and years ahead: “Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”
Damned if we do: if none of the proposed problems outlined extensively by the IBEW materialize, we still see another generation of labor with sordid tales of betrayal to pass down to their children. To avoid this, serious talks between stakeholders should be encouraged.
Damned if we don’t: if California wants to maintain its reputation for state-led environmental initiatives, residents should support the concept of a public utility for the particulate-matter filled days and ashy nights ahead. What the union states as fact is debatable: earning power, advancement opportunities, job mobility, and bargaining power are all supposedly threatened.
The notion that a Northern California Energy District would be smaller, harmfully reducing employment opportunities, isn’t true. If smaller, why would that automatically reduce bargaining power? It could strengthen communication and solidarity.
Furthermore, there’s much to be said for the emergency benefits of a micro-grid model that draws from renewable resources, and California microgrid rulemaking has recently commenced to that effect.
Small is beautiful, or at least microgrids are, right?
Businesses and residents need power, and the state — which is a deeply flawed entity itself (see ongoing prison expenditures) — could have a more vested interest in providing this than Wall Street. (Private shareholders for so-called public utilities operations would be an arena of criticism the union can proudly engage with.)
The proposed FY20-21 California budget summary acknowledges the public utility option, stating: “... any such action would be carefully structured in a manner that safeguards the state's General Fund.” Why not skip dipping into the General Fund for proposed expenditures like $21.6 million for increased prison video surveillance, $3.8 million to upgrade segregated housing, and 21.4 million to provide staff training, for example?
As argued elsewhere, closing prisons down can help transfer dire funds between embattled departments while attending to a critical wing of working class life: the prisoner futility business.
Can the state establish a good faith climate resilience labor transition fund with millions earmarked for pricey and experimental prison expenditures? Would the California Corrections Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) — the corrections officers union — block this move?
The U.S. grassroots labor movement can see beyond the divide-and-conquer tactics in a state with so much to lose and little to no time — as labor wins, and environment loses (just like in the USMCA finalization) or vice versa. Over and over again.
Can California model a labor/environment win-win here? Fund a public utility; not prisoner futility.
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