The recent electoral defeat of a ballot referendum in the state of Maine which would have established the first consumer-owned state-wide public utility in the United States was a disappointment to progressive activists, environmentalists and advocates for economic democracy. Nevertheless the struggle for economic democracy and public accountability in the utility industry continues. Continual exploitation by corporate predators of labor and consumers alike has resulted in a backlash characterized by worker strikes and consumer resistance to unjustified rate hikes and poor service. Environmental activists concerned about global warming, climate change and the need to provide for renewable sources of clean energy, have also come to realize that investment capitalism, the drive for maximum profitability, cannot be relied upon to reduce dependency on fossil fuels that contribute to ecological damage.
Although the struggle for clean, consumer-focused energy resources continues in states like Maine, in other parts of the US increasing efforts to organize utility workers and demand a greater share of utility revenue for workers and their families are also having an impact. Recently in New Jersey hundreds of utility workers, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) employed by the Atlantic City Electric Company (ACE) went on strike. ACE is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Exelon, the largest corporate, investor-capitalist driven utility in the US. The workers went on strike to protest declining wages relative to living expenses, unsafe and intolerable working conditions, cuts to pensions and benefits as well as the lack of management responsiveness to worker concerns and relevant input. In addition to Exelon/ACE unfair labor practices, workers were also concerned about rising rates for electrical service in excess of consumer income, customer abuse and neglect of service, insufficient staffing levels and greater reliance on nonunion subcontractors in an attempt to limit the collective bargaining power of union members. According to the workers, unsafe staffing and reliance on inexperienced, untrained nonunion subcontractors posed not only a significant danger to ACE employees, but also a serious threat to the safety and welfare of the community and its residents. In the meantime as wages were declining and rates for service were going up, ACE’s parent company Exelon reported record net income and profitability from the company’s performance.
As the strike continued for several weeks there were reported outages in several towns located near Atlantic City, New Jersey. Though the company accused workers of vandalizing equipment and assaulting nonunion contractors, preventing them from restoring power to affected customers, there was absolutely no evidence presented to civil authorities to justify prosecution or any criminal sanctions against the union. To the contrary, the union presented convincing evidence that the company’s use of nonunion contractors was the main reason for delays in restoring power. The union pointed out that nonunion workers, mostly inexperienced and lacking proper training, were simply ill-equipped to deal with any emergencies that might occur. As long as privately owned, investor capitalism controls the utility industry, the use of cheaper, nonunion labor becomes more of an issue, presenting not only a danger to other workers and the surrounding community but customers, consumers and ratepayers as well.
Another weapon utilized by corporate predators against their employees is a divide and conquer strategy, putting workers with greater seniority, benefits and higher pay against younger workers who are paid much less and receive fewer benefits for the same work. Striking workers are demanding at least a sufficient minimum of wages and benefits to assure every worker of a liveable standard for their labor. The pandemic of 2020-21 also increased worker awareness of the need to ensure that employee safety and security will always be more important than profitability and maximizing net income. Workers at Atlantic City Electric Company want to ensure that their exposure to hazardous working conditions such as working through the pandemic as well as extremely dangerous health and life-threatening conditions related to severe storms and other forms of natural disaster, won’t be repeated. Included in those demands are specific policies and procedures to ensure that worker safety will always be more important than maximizing corporate profits and investor return on capital. This is essential to make certain that worker health and welfare will not be sacrificed for the sake of corporate profitability in the event of another catastrophic occurrence.
Democratizing the utility industry is also essential to achieve clean energy goals and negate the adverse impact of global warming, climate change. Privately-owned corporate utility companies, answerable to their investors instead of the people and communities they serve, cannot be trusted to pursue policies and activities that discourage the use of fossil fuel resources rather than adopt environmentally friendly and safe alternative, renewable energy sources. Community ownership is the only way to ensure responsible management and utilization of clean, renewable energy to provide reliable service to residential, business and industrial customers.
Ultimately, however, as long as investor-capitalists own and operate utility service providers there can never be a satisfactory resolution of the struggle between labor and capital for managing and operating electrical energy and other resources for the benefit of the people and their communities. Sooner or later power utilities must be answerable to the people, not corporate predators. Despite the recent defeat of the Pine Tree Power Company, a community-owned energy cooperative for the state of Maine, there is a model that can be used to point the way for other groups, activists and organizations to democratize the utility industry. However, no model for community ownership of utility companies can be implemented successfully without a strategic partnership and tactical alliance between consumers, community and organized labor, specifically the utility workers and employees who put their own health and safety on the line to support the community, especially in times of natural disasters. The defeat of community ownership in Maine was largely the result of opposition from organized labor, utility workers fearful of losing their right to collective bargaining, autonomy and job security from a state takeover with no guarantees of wages, benefits and working conditions. Any plan to implement community ownership of public utilities must include support from utility workers and include the right to collective bargaining and active participation in the management and implementation of policies and procedures to protect workers, consumers and the environment. Without workers participation, collaborative and cooperative management between labor and consumers of public utilities, community ownership cannot be successful.
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