Bringing Power to the People: The Unlikely Case for Utility Populism

By Kate Aronoff  - Dissent, Summer 2017

One glaring omission in the postmortem handwringing about the 2016 election is the fact that most poor people in America—of all races and genders—simply didn’t vote. They were prevented from doing so by a number of structural barriers—voting restrictions, second and third jobs, far-flung polling locations—as well as a lack of excitement about two parties they saw as having abandoned them.

Enter: twenty-first-century electric cooperatives, a perhaps unlikely player in the contest for power between progressives and conservatives in the heart of so-called Trump country in rural America.

If there’s one thing poor, rural communities tend to have in common, it’s where they get their power—not political power, but actual electricity. Over 900 rural electric cooperatives (RECs)—owned and operated by their members—stretch through forty-seven states, serving 42 million ratepayers and 11 percent of the country’s demand for electricity. They also serve 93 percent of the country’s “persistent poverty counties,” 85 percent of which lie in non-metropolitan areas. REC service areas encompass everything from isolated farm homes to mountain hollers to small cities, with the highest concentrations in the South, the Midwest, and the Great Plains. And they might just offer an opportunity to curb the right and the climate crisis alike.

Nominally democratic, RECs have the ability to transform a sizable chunk of America’s energy sector—one of the highest-polluting parts of our economy. Servicing ratepayers whose top agenda may not be climate change, the push to integrate renewables into RECs’ energy mix nonetheless grounds the transition away from carbon-intensive fuels in something more material: energy bills. Member-owner reformers dotting the map of red and rural America are already waging fights over their cooperatives on two fronts: for basic representation and for energy efficiency. Their work—combining a zeal for small-d democracy with one for bringing down emissions—could hold the key to making sure the transition away from fossil fuels includes some of the poorest places in the country on the ground floor. Crucially, it could also help extend our much heralded clean energy revolution beyond liberal enclaves like New York and California. If successful, reformed RECs could give progressives a much needed foothold in places the Democratic Party has long since abandoned. They might also help greens refocus fights onto pocketbook issues.

Understanding the RECs’ radical potential, however, means understanding their history. Rural electrification was intended to accomplish one goal: to serve people neglected by the private sector. At the start of the Great Depression, some 90 percent of rural homes lacked electricity. For private utilities (the only game in town at the time) extending power lines to customers spread out over tens or hundreds of miles simply wasn’t worth the cost—especially considering that the vast majority of those potential customers happened to be poor.

Our Best Shot at Meeting Paris Goals? Make Energy Public

By Sarah van Gelder - Yes! Magazine, July 9, 2017

Mayors across the country have vowed to deliver on the goals of the Paris climate accord in defiance of President Trump’s decision to back out. But how can they, realistically, when the national government is questioning climate science and promoting coal, fracking, and pipelines?

Simply put: Make energy public. Instead of privatizing city services, as some policymakers have long advocated, a new report shows that public ownership gives cities and towns the best shot at meeting renewable energy and efficiency targets.

Reclaiming Public Services: How Cities and Citizens are Turning Back Privatization,” a study by the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, challenges the ideas that governments are ineffective service providers, that private companies are more efficient, and that austerity budgeting and reductions in public service are inevitable.

Cities and towns that want well-run water and sanitation services, low-cost access to the internet, and affordable housing should keep those operations public or run by local nonprofits, the report found. If these services are now private, the institute recommends “re-municipalization.”

The report is based on research involving 1,600 cities in 45 countries that have chosen public ownership over corporate ownership, especially of their energy and water systems. “These (re)municipalisations generally succeeded in bringing down costs and tariffs, improving conditions for workers and boosting service quality, while ensuring greater transparency and accountability,” the report concludes.

Both Hamburg, Germany, and Boulder, Colorado, for example, are making their electric power enterprises public in order to shift to green and renewable energy sources.

In France, 106 cities and towns have taken over their local water systems in the past 15 years, in spite of the fact that France is home to some of the world’s largest private water companies. During that time, the report found that no French cities went the other direction and privatized their water system.

The report focuses on water and energy services, but there are many other services that benefit from local public ownership—some unexpected. The French towns of Mouans-Sartoux and Ungersheim bought farmland and hired local farmers to supply organic produce for school lunches. In India, the Tamil Nadu government opened dozens of public low-cost restaurants run by impoverished women to feed the poor. Argentina privatized postal services in 1997, but just six years later, renationalized the service in response to the private company’s poor service and high prices.

Privatization is tempting; it can provide local governments with short-term cash infusions. What politician doesn’t like to fill a budget hole without raising taxes? But the infusions don’t last. The private companies must pay large sums to their shareholders and executives, which they often do by cutting corners on upkeep, wages, and services, or jacking up customers’ rates. Instead of circulating locally, that money leaves a city’s economy.

According to the report, once a service is turned over to a private company, many cities found it was difficult to maintain accountability. They faced cost overruns, poor service, and violations of contracts. Many found they saved money and improved services when services went back into public hands.

Although family-owned or worker-owned businesses and consumer cooperatives are essential to local economies, some services—like water and sanitation—are best operated at a municipal or regional scale, and multiple providers may not make sense. In cases of these natural monopolies, local public ownership especially makes sense.

Like an ecosystem, a functioning local economy requires diversity. It needs many forms of ownership and types of entities. To thrive over years, each entity must both give and take; they must be in relationship with the people, institutions, and ecosystems that make up each community. When a local economy is dominated by enterprises that work to extract value for Wall Street banks or corporations controlled by absentee owners, communities are drained of their common wealth. It is that concern that drives much of the opposition to big international trade deals, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which critics say favor corporate rights over those of local government.

On the other hand, local entities, whether operated by worker-owners, families, nonprofit enterprises, or local governments, seek out multiple bottom lines—multiple benefits for employees, young people, vulnerable residents, and other local enterprises. They also take responsibility for their own human and natural communities. That is how We the People and the natural world can thrive for the long term.

Jerry Brown, climate leader or climate charlatan?

By Dan Bacher - Red, Green, and Blue, July 8, 2017

Brown made the announcement at a time when increasing numbers of Californians are challenging his  environmental credentials as he teams up with the Donald Trump administration to build the controversial Delta Tunnels and to exempt three major California oilfields from protection under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act.

“It’s up to you and it’s up to me and tens of millions of other people to get it together to roll back the forces of carbonization and join together to combat the existential threat of climate change,” said Governor Brown in his remarks on the eve of the G20 Summit. “That is why we’re having the Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, September 2018.”

“President Trump is trying to get out of the Paris Agreement, but he doesn’t speak for the rest of America. We in California and in states all across America believe it’s time to act, it’s time to join together and that’s why at this Climate Action Summit we’re going to get it done,” he claimed.

Driscoll’s Boycott Movement Continues and Grows

By anonymous contributor - It's Going Down, July 7, 2017

This is a friendly reminder from your comrades at the Good Earth Workers Union that the call to boycott the multi-national corporation known as Driscoll’s Berries is still ongoing.

You may recall that last year, about 400 farmworkers organized as FUJ in Washington state fought for a contract in their struggle for higher wages and better working conditions. Despite their successful and hard-won fight, berry pickers and other agricultural workers face severely worse working conditions in the Mexican state of Baja California.

At least 60,000 workers are represented by the National Independent Democratic Union of Agricultural Workers (SINDJA). Our brothers and sisters in Mexico have been facing fierce repression for their organizing efforts in the region over the last several years. Many of them work at farms in the San Quintin region that are contracted through Driscoll’s Berries.

Don’t be fooled by the “Fair Trade” sticker they slap on the clamshell packages: Driscoll’s is complicit with a corrupt state that uses violence to crush labor movements. The next time you need to visit a grocery store, don’t just boycott the berries; ask to talk to the produce department about the ongoing movement. Any store that sees value in selling organic or fair trade products should heed this call to action.

For more information and resources, especially if you live in Minnesota, visit our website NoBloodBerriesMN.wordpress.com

Climate Insurgency Webinar with Jeremy Brecher

By Jeremy Brecher - 350.org YouTube, June 26, 2017

An introduction to the Climate Insurgency strategy framework, which weaves together many strands of climate organizing--mass nonviolent direct action, freezing fossil fuel infrastructure, public trust, and just transition--into a global strategic framework to protect our climate.

This is the first of a series of Exploring Climate Strategy Webinars.

To find out about the following webinars visit: https://350.org/webinars-exploring-cl...


Brain Labor Report 7.5.2017 - JP Wright

John Paul Wright interviewed by Wes Brain - Brain Labor Report, July 5, 2017

On the Brain Labor Report for July 5 we talk with labor, railroad and folk singer JP Wright.

railroadmusic.org

download here via archive.org

Tendencies of the Trumpocalypse

By Jeff Shantz - Anarcho Syndicalist Review, July 5, 2017

The rise of Trump and more importantly the far-Right movements around him raise some questions about the nature of the Trumpocalypse (and its relation to Right populism or more to the point to fascism). The question is now being asked whether or not it is true that there is fascism of some sort in the US at the present time. While not providing a firm answer on that question there are some initial tendencies or shaping features that are suggestive and should be addressed. These are outlines of Trumpocalypse rather than hard and fast conclusions.

Fascism refers to a unique and most extreme form of bourgeois rule. This is so because under fascism the bourgeoisie gives up some of its control to shock troops and loses its customary hold over the mechanisms of liberal democracy. Big capital desires fascism to do its dirty work for it and fascism becomes a tool of big capital. Finance capital through fascism gathers all the organs and institutions of the state. Schools, press, municipalities. Not only the executive. Workers groups are crushed. At its heart fascism is an armed movement that uses extreme violence against the Left.

Some suggest that populism is a more useful term than fascism right now. Yet there are problems with the use of populism to describe the far Right movements today. Centrist notions of populism equate Left and Right. Both are lumped together as non-liberal, against trade, etc., and therefore both are bad. In this way the centrist notions of populism are similar to earlier versions of totalitarianism analysis, as in the work of Hannah Arendt, for example. FDR was referred to as a fascist by some communists. While at the same time Hitler was called a passing phenomenon—to be followed in turn by a victorious proletarian revolution.

At the same time there is a Trumpism—against urbanism, rationalism, metropolitanism. It is a proto-fascist movement. It is about a dynamic. The proposed “purification” of society. A new anthropology—creating the human anew (as in fascism).

Of some importance, there is a tendency to underestimate the movements of contemporary brownshirts in the US. Some commentators might still assume that real fascists in the US live in bunkers in the desert and are merely odd survivalists. But that is a dangerous misreading of current movements. It is an analysis from the 1990s. Fascists today, and this is one thing that can be said about the Trump campaign, have come above ground.

Five Days that Shook My World, Part One: The Making of a Critical Thinking Community

By John Foran - Resilience.org, July 5, 2017

I spent five days in June at a most unusual gathering.  Unusual, because unlike the many academic conferences, the workshops, the handful of “symposia” I’ve attended, this one seemed right on the mark, existentially and politically, for our moment.

Dubbed B.Y.O.B., for “Bring Your Own Brain,” and put on by a collective of students from Big Sky High School in Missoula, Montana who go by the hashtag #freeusfromclimatechaos (FUCC, in case you don’t get the biting but playful humor at the heart of their critique), this had been nine months in the making, assisted by their Spanish teacher, Jay Bostrom and a crew of adult allies from their school and mentors from the local activist community affinity group the ZooTown Zaps.

It was, in fact, a pretty credible incarnation of a North American, youth-led experiment with Zapatismo; recall that to the thousands of queries the Zapatistas have received from activists over the past twenty-three years about what they should be doing, the consistent answer has been:  “Go and do what we do, but in your own way, in your own place of origin, your own home, your own community.”

Some of these students – and their teachers – had already made a trip to Chiapas, to see the Zapatista revolution first hand.  A year ago, they had engaged in a Skyped event with indigenous activists from around the world.  Last summer, based on those conversations, they decided that this year they would go to the root of the problem, and they arrived at … climate chaos.  All of this would be unusual even for a college class in the United States.

Summer of Solidarity and Rail Safety

By staff - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, July 3, 2017

How many more have to die?

July 6th this year marks four years since a runaway train carrying volatile Bakken crude crashed and burned in the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 and destroying half the town. It’s time to recommit to making sure tragedies like this don’t happen again. It’s also the right time to speak up against the criminal trial beginning September 11th this year, that unfairly and inaccurately hangs the Lac-Mégantic crash on two railroad workers, Tom Harding and Richard Labrie.

Railroad managers push hard to squeeze every dollar they can out of every train run. The Lac-Mégantic train had a dangerous cargo, overlong train, defective equipment, a single crew-member and work rules that cut the margin of safety down to just about zero. The result was a disaster that still impacts the Lac-Mégantic community.

Multiple government safety investigations and independent journalists looked at what happened in Lac-Mégantic and came to the same conclusion. Railroad management policies made this kind of runaway train crash likely to happen sooner or later. Lax government oversight looked the other way until it did.

You would think that four years later there would be stronger safety regulations on every railroad, with extra layers of protection for dangerous cargo. Sadly, this is not the case. Railroad policymakers are still cutting corners and government regulators are still looking the other way. They want people to believe that the big safety problem is a few careless railroad workers.  But in Lac-Mégantic, SINCE the wreck, the supposedly safely restored wreck curve has now deteriorated and keeps that community at risk.  Everyone there tightens up when a train passes now.

Even after all the reports and exposes, the Canadian and Quebec governments are still not going after the railroad policy makers and their unsafe policies. The managers who made the critical policies will not even get a slap on the wrist. That’s just wrong, and it guarantees that the danger continues. Every year since the crash, the number of reported runaway trains in Canada has increased. That’s a sign of a reckless culture, not the actions of two rail-road workers one night in Quebec.

Whether your main issue is the environment, community safety, rail safety, or worker’s rights, it comes down to stronger government regulations and stronger railroad safety policies, with real community and labor enforcement. The two railroad workers were not the cause of the Lac-Mégantic crash or any of the runaway trains since then. They are not the ones still running trains right through the town of Lac-Mégantic, ignoring the demands of the survivors for a simple rail bypass. The people in Lac-Mégantic know that sending Harding and Labrie to prison won’t address any of their problems with the railroad. But if that happens, you can bet the government will close the book as the official verdict on Lac-Mégantic and railroad management will be standing there with them.

When you hold public commemorations this year, we ask you to make this point your way. Blaming Harding and Labrie for the Lac-Mégantic tragedy weakens all of us and all our causes. So all of us have to speak up.

Confronting the Whiteness of Environmentalism

By Rachel Levelle - 350.org PDX, June 29, 2017

Climate Justice means hard work.

It’s tempting to assign labels or catchphrases to movements. The concept of climate justice or environmental justice has caught massive traction in organizing groups, but as easy as it is to put on a banner, it’s even easier to lose sight of what it really means.

Growing up in Beaverton, it was very easy for me to view climate change as solely a crisis of nature. It never occurred to me that the burden of the crisis was being shouldered unevenly. I heard about the polar ice caps melting and polar bears dying, but not about the Pacific Islander and seaside communities that were losing their homes at the same time. People like the workers at fossil fuel plants that need a steady paycheck, indigenous communities whose land is poisoned by oil, and low-income communities neighboring train tracks or dumping sites are not responsible for climate change or harm to environment. Yet, when coal trains derailing, toxic waste dumps, pipelines, and horrific factory conditions are talked about, plants and animals receive empathy while the people affected by these tragedies are too often ignored by the climate and environmental movements.

Repeatedly, environmental crises are viewed in isolation from issues like economic and racial justice by mainstream organizers and media. But the links of whose health and safety are valued and whose are disposable are deeply tied to these problems. Would corporations have the power to dump however much toxic waste and garbage they wanted if those sites were in predominantly white, middle-upper class neighborhoods? If affluent white communities were dependent on the health of the oceans and rivers for daily survival, would the response to pollution be so moderate? The answer is, unfortunately, seen in movements such as “Not In My Backyard” and in the decision to move the Dakota Access Pipeline onto Lakota and Dakota land. When projects are based in wealthier, white neighborhoods, they’re shut down rapidly.

As I began organizing during college, I realized this wasn’t because only these neighborhoods were protesting the developments. It was that these people were given legitimacy and a platform because of their identities. I could explain here the roots and causes of environmental injustice, but there are many who have done it better than I could (see the links below!). But simply stated, the effects come from the toxic combinations of capitalism and white supremacy.

Again and again in organizing, I’ve encountered an mindset among white organizers that people of color and poor folks aren’t fighting climate change. Often it is done with a sort of sympathetic, condescending tilt. When predominantly white environmental groups are asked why their campaigns aren’t drawing the power of more peoples to speak on their own behalf, there are some common responses: people of color are too busy organizing against racism, or lower-income communities are occupied with organizing for fair wages and better housing… or earning a wage.

And yet, very term “environmental justice” was coined by poor, black, rural organizers in the 1980’s. People like Reverend Leon White, Reverend Ben Chavis, and Reverend Joseph Lowery fought in Warren County against a toxic landfill being placed in their town. Environmental justice isn’t a free-floating term. It had been used by Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and Pacific-Islander organizers to rebel against exploitative, unsustainable farming practices, fossil fuel plants, toxic waste dumps, destruction of natural landscapes they call home, and more. The harsh truth is, though, that these communities have been organizing against environmental degradation from the beginning—white environmentalists just didn’t notice because the campaign message wasn’t flagged as pro-environment.

Here’s the crux of the issue. Any solution, yes, ANY solution that remedies environmental injustice, and that does not center people of color and lower-income people in both formation and implementation is incomplete. Read that sentence again, and remember it. Because these false solutions fail to defend those most affected by climate change. There are issues and solutions that middle class, white organizers frankly cannot recognize and know the solutions to by themselves, because the problems aren’t theirs.

I’m not going to pretend I’m an authority on what this work entails or have unlearned all the internalized classism, misogyny, or whiteness (given that I am multiracial, I too have a lot of whiteness I need to acknowledge!) that interferes with me being able to do this work well. But that’s just it—none of us are ever done. We have to constantly be analyzing what platforms we might be taking from those who have been historically silenced. White people must acknowledge that their thought processes and false objectivity have been informed by whiteness and realize that they simply cannot have all the answers. They must become accept the tension in confronting their own biases, complacency, and role in allowing white supremacy to continue in the Pacific Northwest.

What is whiteness, and how is it different than having white skin, or than acting with white supremacist tendencies? Challenge the excuses that pop into your head to avoid the topic, and check out some of the resources below, that also show up on the environmental justice resources page. It’s really not that bad. 

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