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municipalism

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.

The reversal of privatization and an urban coming of age

By staff - Rabble.Ca, June 23, 2017

A gentle revolution is underway in Barcelona, Spain. Until recently, prevailing wisdom has been that efficient, quality and cheap services are best provided by handing everything over to the private sector. These days are gone. From energy supply to kindergartens to funeral services, the municipality is providing more and more of the basic needs of its citizens at affordable and transparent prices. Following a city council motion in December 2016, Barcelona is now aiming to municipalize its water service. Since the progressive coalition Barcelona en Comú gained power in the Catalan capital, the city has introduced a wide-ranging policy of remunicipalizing outsourced public services and creating new ones.

Barcelona is not unique in this respect. Thousands of public officials, workers, unions and social movements are working to create effective public services that address the basic needs of people and respond to social, environmental and climate challenges. They do this most often at the local level. Reclaiming Public Services, a new report, found that there have been at least 835 examples of (re)municipalization of public services worldwide in recent years, involving more than 1,600 cities in 45 countries.

Cities and towns around the world are following different models of public ownership, with citizens and workers involved in a variety of ways. People are moving away from private options and developing new, public ways to deliver services. Far from being an anomaly, bringing services like transport, health care and energy back under public control is a worldwide trend -- and one that makes sense.

Privatization has been given ample chance to succeed and has come up short. The persistent myth that public services are by nature more expensive, inefficient and outdated, and that we, as citizens and users, should resign ourselves to paying ever higher tariffs for ever lower standards has not yet abated. Nor has the idea that service workers have no choice but to accept ever more degraded conditions. Because everything is seen to have a price, many politicians have lost sight of the common good, while "taxpayers" are sometimes only interested in their own individual pursuits.

The remunicipalization movement tells a very different story. While it is still in its infancy in Canada, the remunicipalization movement in Europe can be seen as a response to austerity policies and is being carried forward by an increasingly diverse array of politicians. Successful (re)municipalization experiences inspire and empower other local authorities to follow suit. We see it in the way municipalities and citizens have joined forces in Germany to push for energy democracy. In France and Catalonia, networks of public water operators pool resources and expertise, working together to deal with the challenges of remunicipalization.

There are many examples from outside Europe too. In India, the city of Delhi began the process of delivering affordable primary public health care in 2015 by setting up 1,000 Mohalla (community) clinics in 2015. Since then more than 2.6 million of its poorest residents have received free quality services.

These locally rooted changes are providing improved services as well as savings for local authorities and the public. The Nottingham City Council in the U.K., for example, decided to set up a new energy supply company in 2015 after finding that many low-income families in the city were struggling to pay their gas and electricity bills. Robin Hood Energy offers a cheaper service than private providers because it neither extracts profits nor confuses customers with complicated pricing schemes. The company, which offers the lowest energy prices in the country, has the motto: "No private shareholders. No director bonuses. Just clear transparent pricing." They have also formed partnerships with other major cities. In 2016, the city of Leeds set up the White Rose Energy municipal company to promote simple no-profit tariffs throughout the Yorkshire and Humberside regions. In 2017, the cities of Bradford and Doncaster agreed to join the White Rose/Robin Hood partnership. Meanwhile, campaigners with Switched on London are pushing their city to set up a not-for-profit energy company with genuine citizen participation. The motivations in these diverse cities are similar: young municipal companies can simultaneously beat energy poverty and play a key role in achieving a just and renewable energy transition.

Capital Blight: Common Cause or a Neighborhood "Linch"-Mob?

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 19, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Recently, a member of the IWW EUC posted a link to a May 27, 2015 editorial by four anonymous members of the Common Cause anarchist-communist federation, titled, Active Corrosion: Building Working-class Opposition to Pipelines, and I must say, it's very thought provoking. They definitely raise some important issues and ask some pertinent questions, but ultimately their criticisms of the IWW EUC and the conclusions they draw based on that fall far off the mark. Furthermore, although I share many of their criticisms of the environmental movement across the spectrum from mainstream NGO to radical direct-action eco-radical, I find their proposed remedies, while well intentioned, to be insufficient and, quite frankly, formulaic.

Who Misquoted Judi Bari?

Perhaps it's best to begin with their rather shallow understanding of the current orientations within Earth First!. In section II of their piece, (The Lay of the Land), they declare:

There are the assertions of Earth First!-types, as expressed by the organization’s co-founder Dave Foreman that it is “the bumpkin proletariat so celebrated in Wobbly lore who holds the most violent and destructive attitudes towards the natural world (and toward those who would defend it).”

It's interesting that they would reference that particular statement of Foreman's, since it was made almost twenty-five years ago, in a debate with Murray Bookchin, conducted as Dave Foreman was dropping out of the Earth First! movement in response to the latter incorporating class struggle into its radical ecology perspective (due, in no small part, to the influence of Judi Bari whom they so quickly dismiss--but more about that later). Many of Foreman's supporters within Earth First! who held similar views would soon follow within the next few years, and for the most part, most of them never returned to the fold. These days, Earth First!, while far from consistent or perfect on matters of class struggle or workers issues, is significantly more inclusive of them. If one were to read, for example, any of the rather detailed articles by Alexander Reid Ross, and they would see that some Earth First!ers have a fairly deep and extensive understanding of workers' issues. While it is true that there is also a strong primitivist--as well as a persistent insurrectionist--streak within that movement (one that I am often willing to criticize when he deems it necessary), these leanings do not preclude social anarchist perspectives.

Moving on from there, the editorialists opine:

In contrast, there is the commitment of the Wobblies’, otherwise known as the Industrial Workers of the World, Environmental Unionism Caucus to strategize about, “how to organize workers in resource extraction industries with a high impacts [sic] on the environment”, which lacks a broader vision of addressing industries which cannot exist in their current form or at all, if we are to prevent crisis.

Perhaps before making this rather sneeringly dismissive comment, the authors might have--perhaps--read some of the texts and articles on our site, ecology.iww.org, such as the numerous texts arguing against extractivism, including this statement by the South African Mine and Metal Workers' Union (NUMSA), this article by Jess Grant, or this series of articles arguing against "socialist" apologies for Nuclear Power, including my own pieces (Part 1; Part 2), just to name a few. Better yet, would it have been asking too much for the writers to actually contact us and ask us our opinions on the matter? You'll please forgive us if we regard such lack of due diligence as mentally lazy.