The energy crisis in California - a US shop steward explains what is happening

Interview with California utility power plant worker, conducted in April of 2001. The interview discusses the "energy crisis" in California and the US Left's attitude towards this "crisis". This power plant worker interviewed is a Shop Steward of his Union and Chairperson of his local Labor Party chapter, he goes by the name, Orson Card.

Please tell us about the privitization of the energy sector in California:

What is going on in California and the rest of the United States is "deregulation". It's a form of privatization although somewhat different. Historically the electric utilities in the United States are highly "regulated" meaning, they have the right to exist as a "natural monopoly", being run as a private enterprise, but subject to various codes and legislation that would, normally, prevent the outrageous prices now being charged consumers in California. Additionally, any time a utility wanted to raise their rates, they'd have to get approval from various State agencies. In the US there are many public power agencies, taking all sorts of different forms. In California, all this went away in 1996.

The only segments in society pushing for this were the large energy users (chemical companies, large-scale manufacturers and other large energy users) and the utilities themselves who wanted to divert their "regulated" profits into unregulated power sales, where the price was much higher... along with the profits. The Democrats and Republicans gave these companies what they wanted.

Since electricity is not a "storable" commodity, like wheat or oil, those that control the generation can almost dictate the price. It is these large scale profit making private generators, both within the state of California and outside of the state, that have been the subject of so much anger by consumers... and even other companies, those that can't make the sweet-heart deals that the "big boys" have made with the utilities or private energy generators.

Please tell us about the "coming" crisis from your position in the sector:

This summer, when demand for power increases, there will be continuing black outs. The capitalists are now finding themselves in the same situation that they used to accuse the former so-called socialist countries of: not being able to meet the demand of consumers... there is not enough power. In the case of free-enterprise America, however, not having enough power means being able to raise prices on electricity... and make more profit, which, at the end of the day, is all they are concerned about.

Please tell us about the Unions' and the Left-wing parties' actions during the privitization and now that the "crisis" has come, what are the Unions' and the Left-Wing parties' attitudes and what are their demands?

I'll take the last part of this question first, since it's easiest to deal with. Along with most of the public, most left groups, avowedly socialist ones or even moderate ones, have advocated some form of public power, either through the direct confiscation of the utilities' holdings (transmission lines, power plants, etc.) or with this and a combination of 'Municipal Utility Districts'. This is where large and small cities set up their own power companies, usually by forcing utilities to sell them their holdings.

This has a very long tradition in the US. MUDs, as they are called, almost always are cheaper for consumers as the profit motive is taken out. There is a MUD proposal for the city of San Francisco this November, which is expected to pass. PG&E is fighting this 'tooth & nail' by pouring hundreds, perhaps millions of dollars into preventing this.

But MUDs are reasonable only on a very local level, eventually the state, and then national government has to take power production and distribution out of the hands of private enterprise and place it in the hands of the people. "Power to the People", a 60's radical slogan, has taken on new meaning.

Most Marxist groups support this, in various forms, and all oppose "bailing out" PG&E, as this company has gone with open hands to the state government for permission to raise it's rates, granted by the state regulatory agency, and now has the state government bailing out these utilities to the tune of 10 billion US dollars.

Socialist Alternative, Socialist Organizer, the ISO, etc, all are for immediate takeover of the utilities. Of course they all have nuances which I will mention more of down below.

Historically unions defended public power, but into the 90's, most of them in California buckled under the political pressure of my union, IBEW Local 1245, with about 20,000 energy workers. My local, going back 50 years, has always had a comfortable relationship with PG&E, winning higher than average wages, working conditions, etc, made possible by the monopoly status of PG&E and a stable revenue income derived from electricity and gas sales.

My union would then oppose any and all moves that would threaten the financial stability of PG&E, including public power. This has started to slowly change. Many of us in various unions have formed the 'Labor Task Force for Public Power' as an advocate group within the broader labor movement for public power specifically and the formation and support for a Municipal Utility District in San Francisco. We're trying to neutralize my own union's historic opposition and move the labor bodies to the left on this question, which still support some sort of bailout for PG&E instead of an outright takeover. Since this Task Force grew out of a very successful Labor Party forum on this subject only a few weeks ago, we're hoping that elections to the MUD board will be contested by a Labor or Labor/Community slate of candidates to challenge what will inevitably be pro-PG&E candidates.

There is a dispute between the two largest socialist groups in San Francisco: Socialist Alternative (SA) and the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The ISO took the early lead to work with others in building a general public power coalition. The ISO has been the most visible, albeit confused, on the pro-public power side of

the debates. The ISO is active in bringing out its members and supporters but it seems not to have an overall strategic approach... simply calling for public power without giving it any content. It is somewhat absent from the other coalitions working in San Francisco around the specific MUD proposal.

SA intervened in this ISO supported coalition around the issue of raising the demand for 'Public Power under workers control'. It seems they tried to make this something of a "split issue" and alienated many of the independent activists I know in the coalition. Of late I have not seen them active in the many community based coalitions in San Francisco.

I work in the power industry and know the overall ambivalence many workers have toward both PG&E, the new generators taking over the plants and the various public power proposals. They want stability and good union contracts. "Workers Control", left undefined, simply sounds weird to most workers unless it's explained in detail. It's simply not part of our political culture. The slogan is more appropriate not as an immediate agitational slogan (since it's not understood it could hardly be agitational) but as a propaganda position to explain to an already mobilized membership. Just getting our union brothers and sisters interested in defense of their own interests via a MUD or state-wide public power authority, after years of demobilization by the union leadership, is a hard task. "Workers Control", as a statement in the current situation, in my opinion, is simply out of place and not useful at this time.

What are the realistic effects of the crisis and the rolling blackouts? In Europe we only hear brief reports on the crisis and even then it is from a global media perspective. Can you tell us from a very practical perspective what one of these blackouts is like and how it effects day-to-day life?:

Yes, it means GOING DARK: everything in your house or place of work comes to a grinding halt. It's amazing how much we depend on electricity. One's computer, TV, refrigerator, heat, etc., comes from this commodity the capitalists would like to charge 500% more for. I couldn't answer these questions without electricity, nor could this paper be printed. It's truly "civilization shattering"... and shows that capitalism can't provide this vital resource, let alone at a reasonable price.

In the power plants it's very stressful... knowing that one wrong move could black-out the entire city... or state! It's actually come down to this... and it's all the result of the deregulation of electricity!

What difference, if any, is there in the energy situation now that the US is under a Bush administration?

None. Deregulation has been a bi-partisan, meaning Republican AND Democratic attack on working people and it's been going on since the Carter administration initiated the deregulation of interstate trucking. Deregulation in this industry was signed into legislation in 1996 by a Republican Governor but with the support of EVERY Democrat in our state legislature.

It was heard on the CNN recently that Bush claims the entire country is facing an energy crisis, so he wants to start drilling in preserved wildlife areas in Alaska. What do you think about this? Are there any statements made on this by Unions or Left-wing parties?

No statements yet but it's typical of Bush's politics. He's an oil industry executive and the oil cartel (meaning the US oil cartel, not the OPEC one) has wanted to export this oil to Japan and China for decades. The irony is that in California most of the power is generated not from oil but from natural gas and hydro-electric. Even the out of state power sold to the state is mostly this plus coal. Oil is simply not used that much to generate electricity so whoever his advisor was on this issue was not only obviously a stooge for Bush's oil industry friends but also stupid. We don't need this oil.

What changes do you think there have been in the past few years in the consciousness of the working class in the US, from your perspective as a Shop Steward and Labor Party member?

This is a whopper of a question. My industry, electricity and power production, per se, hasn't moved that much. I think there is still a steady "hum" of movement since the UPS strike a number of years ago, but it's very eclectic, with various victories here and defeats there. The fact that Ralph Nader received so many votes from working people is significant, I believe, but the real "sign" as such, would be two-fold. For a real sign of movements in consciousness:

1) An obvious increase in strikes and mobilizations by our class, and 2) The move toward a real class based alternative to the Democrats and Republicans and support for truly independent working class candidates running in the Labor Party or in Labor/Community slates. IF the LP actually follows up on running candidates in local elections, this will be partially a sign of a higher political consciousness.

Are there any comments or statements you wish to add?

The energy crisis shows the failure of privatization and deregulation. The INSTANT prices, usually regulated, was allowed to "float" with demand and the price went up 400%! The only immediate answer has to be public power, in a form that is democratic, where the people have a right to select the management (which is the case with the MUD Proposal in San Francisco) and a state, then national take-over of the industry in a nationalized electric utility grid.

IF the labor movement abstains or opposes this move, then this initiative will fail. The working class SHOULD be leading this movement for public power, which is the task of the Labor Task Force.