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Opinion: Public Utility Campaigns Have A Labor Problem

By C.M. Lewis - The Strike Wave, July 28, 2021

Maine Governor Janet Mills’ labor-backed veto of LD 1708—which would have consolidated two private utility corporations into a statewide consumer cooperative, Pine Tree Power—is a sober warning to those fighting for public utilities: neglect unions at your peril.

Mills is no friend to labor. She previously vetoed pro-worker labor reforms and pledged to veto the right to strike for public workers. But her veto, sustained by the legislature, still accomplished the goal of concerned unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 567, who were alarmed at a potential change in legal jurisdiction.

Union resistance to progressive proposals can often cause consternation. Culinary 226’s opposition to Medicare for All notably caused a stir during the Nevada caucuses, raising the ire of many progressives. However, an immediate assumption that IBEW was wrong to oppose the bill buries the complicated reality: the bill would’ve tangibly harmed union workers. 

IBEW’s opposition was driven by concern that the bill would move workers from jurisdiction under the National Labor Relations Board to the Maine Labor Relations Board, bringing them into the public sector. Although that superficially sounds like a minor administrative change, and no reason for opposition, it would’ve had severe consequences for their workers—notably losing the statutory right to strike, and the imposition of the open shop through the Janus vs. AFSCME ruling

Viewed through that lens, IBEW’s opposition—while frustrating—is not unreasonable, and it speaks to a difficult problem faced by advocates for public utilities: that under present law, there is little to no way to bring private utilities under public control without stripping union rights from workers.

Puerto Rican workers: No peace if energy is privatized

By various - Workers World, June 7, 2021

On June 1, the Financial Oversight and Management Board overseeing Puerto Rico’s economy privatized the island’s public power utilities by signing a $1.3 billion contract with private consortium LUMA Energy. The contract, in effect for the next 15 years, could increase electric rates by 10 cents/kwh or more.

LUMA customers are already encountering new fees and significantly higher bills than formerly paid to the public Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority. Thousands of PREPA workers have lost their jobs. The privatization has fueled demonstrations including encampments and picket lines at plant gates. Further actions could lead to mass protests similar to those in summer 2019 that forced former Governor Pedro Rosselló to resign.

The following is a statement from unions representing thousands of Puerto Rican workers, ranging from teachers to truck drivers, in support of PREPA workers and demanding the LUMA contract be repealed.

Puerto Rico unions close ranks against LUMA Energy

By Wilmarilis Sánchez-Romeu and Edwin Ocasio Feliciano - Struggle La Lucha, June 4, 2021

Union organizations today warned Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and the Financial Oversight and Management Board that they will paralyze the country if the LUMA Energy contract that increases rates, allows the consortium to leave Puerto Rico if a hurricane strikes, and displaces thousands of workers, is not canceled.

“We are warning the attorney for the Financial Oversight and Management Board, Pedro Pierluisi, that there will be no peace in Puerto Rico if the contract is not repealed and they listen to the people who demand, not only a public and more efficient Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), but also one free of fossil fuels. 

“Right now there is a favorable atmosphere for paralyzing the country and if the governor continues to ignore the people, we will do so. We have already held several meetings to coordinate logistics and dates, and this week we will meet again to finalize details. Make no mistake, this summer will be one very similar to that of 2019,” said Carlos Rodríguez, coordinator of the Frente Amplio de Camioneros (Broad Front of Truckers).

“Today, we tell LUMA not to bother settling in our country since we will not leave them alone until they leave Puerto Rico. And the workers who they intend to bring in from abroad should know that if they cross the picket line, they will face a people willing to defend their energy sovereignty and their access to water. There is no life without water and electricity! 

Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility

By Dominic Brown - New Labor Forum, May 2021

Despite 2020’s record fall in carbon dioxide emissions—largely due to extensive and repeated “lockdowns” of cities, plus dramatic decreases in air travel and the use of motor vehicles[1]—the world is far from making the changes necessary to avert climate catastrophe. The fact that the shutdowns over periods of last year had a marginal effect in the fight against climate catastrophe at best illustrates the enormity of the task that lies ahead. According to a 2019 report from the World Meteorological Organization, “time is fast running out,”[2] while Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), observes “The pandemic and its aftermath can suppress emissions, but low economic growth is not a low emissions strategy. Only an acceleration in structural changes to the way the world produces and consumes energy can break the emissions trend for good.”[3]

In addition to ravaging health systems, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated food and housing insecurity, deepened unemployment, and put a spotlight on existing inequalities. In South Africa, growing awareness of these problems has brought renewed hope in the possibility of a response to the pandemic crisis that could aim for a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy. Like other countries, South Africa is in desperate need of an energy transition. The South African economy remains disproportionately energy intensive[4] (although it is becoming less so), per capita emissions remain high,[5] and the country is the fourteenth largest contributor to global carbon emissions.[6] This energy and emissions profile reflects the historical and continuing dominance of the country’s “minerals-energy complex” (“MEC”)[7] which is supported by cheap electricity generated mostly from low-quality coal, while higher quality coal is exported.

Beyond its detrimental ecological impacts, South Africa’s MEC is deeply intertwined with the legacy of cheap Black labor in the mines and the formation of racialized capitalism. This structure of South Africa’s economy underpins the country’s massive inequality, serious health impacts for many thousands of people in mining affected communities, and the country’s disproportionate contribution to global emissions. This is why the shift to renewable energy (RE) in South Africa must include measures to ensure a just transition that leaves no worker or community behind while working to reverse the legacy of mass unemployment and deep socioeconomic inequalities.

The Political Economy of South Africa’s Energy Crisis

Since coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s government has promised “electricity for all” as a critical component in undoing the gross disparities of apartheid. This commitment has produced a dramatic rise in grid connections, such that more than 80 percent of households were connected to the grid by 2015, up from only 30 percent in 1994. Harder to shift have been the persistent levels of poverty and inequality. South Africa’s “Gini coefficient”— a global measure of inequality—today places the country as the world’s second most unequal, after neighboring Lesotho. With current unemployment at over 40 percent, many households cannot afford electricity, even when they are connected to the grid. The introduction of a provision for free basic electricity in 2004 was a step in the right direction, but at just 50 kWh per month for poor households that is insufficient to meet even basic requirements.

Since coming to power in 1994, South Africa’s government has promised “electricity for all” as a critical component in undoing the gross disparities of Apartheid.

Making matters worse, South Africa’s stateowned power utility, Eskom—which generates over 90 percent of energy consumed in the country—is in deep crisis. Eskom’s crisis has multiple dimensions and various causes, both internal and external, including (1) the 1980s era commercialization of Eskom; (2) postapartheid commitments to provide electricity to the majority of the country previously excluded, under the full cost recovery (FCR) model where the excluded majority are unable to afford rising electricity prices; (3) underinvestment in the utility’s infrastructure, particularly in building new capacity to meet increased demand; (4) conversion of the utility in 2002 to a public corporation, forcing it to pay taxes as well as dividends for the first time since its establishment almost a century earlier; (5) Eskom’s rising debt, dominated by foreign currency borrowed against the weak rand (R); (6) expensive coal contracts with windfall profits, signed in the name of promoting Black ownership in the coal industry; and (7) dramatic increases in the price of low-quality coal, upon which Eskom depends to generate electricity.[8]

Ireland’s Energy System: The Historical Case for Hope in Climate Action

By Sinéad Mercier - New Labor Forum, May 17, 2021

For thirty years, governments have been promising climate action. They seem incapable of undertaking the necessary major shifts in their energy systems required by the 2015 Paris Agreement. They also seem incapable of delivering on climate targets in a manner that both “leaves no one behind” and “reaches the furthest behind first,” as required by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, also agreed in 2015. In Ireland, we fall continually to the bottom of the rankings in climate action, with the current Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and Green Party coalition government failing to achieve a mere 16 percent target of renewable energy by 2020.[1]

There are lessons to be learned from the past. One hundred years ago, the two civil war parties—Fine Gael (then Cumann na nGaedheal) and Fianna Fáil—were united in their commitment to a state-owned energy system with an objective of universal access, public good, and public value. Irish state electricity generation started out in 1929 as being from almost 100 percent renewable sources.[2] The historical development of Ireland’s own energy system can be a model for a successful, fast paced national delivery program for a just transition and energy democracy. Ireland has previously made sweeping changes to the energy system, in a time of far greater difficulty, fewer resources, and almost intractable political fragility. The example is the establishment of the country’s—and the world’s—first state-owned national energy company, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), and its roll-out of universal access to affordable electricity through the Rural Electrification Scheme (RES).

Administering Dreams

The Ireland of the 1920s presented unlikely circumstances for ambitious national projects of any kind. After three years of guerrilla warfare against the British Crown forces, a form of independence had been achieved by 1922. The young Irish Free State government of freedom fighters and idealists was to set out on its own with little source of economic development beyond the sale of cattle to Britain and with much of its populace in extreme poverty. In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed, giving independence to twenty six counties and leaving the six counties in the north east of Ireland under British rule. The signing of the Treaty caused a split in the founding Sinn Féin party between those opposing and supporting the Treaty. This sparked a bitter civil war from June 1922 to May 1923 that has marked Irish politics for a century. The pro-Treaty element formed Cumann na nGaedheal, today the centerright (Christian Democrat) party Fine Gael. A group of republicans led by Éamon de Valera broke away from Sinn Féin in 1926 and formed Fianna Fáil,[3] in protest at the Oath of Allegiance to the British Crown, which all members of Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) were obliged to take. The Cumann na nGaedheal party was in office from 1922 to 1932. Laissez-faire economic and commercial orthodoxies of the 1920s, inherited from the British administration, and a reinstated civil service were largely the global order of the day.

One hundred years ago, the two civil war parties . . . were united in their commitment to a state-owned energy system with an objective of universal access, public good, and public value.

However, the young state took on a number of major interventions in the economy. Most notable were the Land Commission and the creation of Ireland’s state energy company, the ESB, and its primary power source, the Ardnacrusha Hydroelectric Power Station on the Shannon River—also known as the “Shannon Scheme.”[4] To deliver Ardnacrusha’s energy to the public, in 1927 the government established its first Irish state company, the ESB, through the Electricity (Supply) Act, 1927. This was to be the first national electricity service in the world, with full responsibility for the generation, transmission, distribution, and marketing o electricity.[5] From its beginnings, the aim of the ESB was not-for-profit, universal, and affordable access to electricity; “strong on technical expertise, with set targets and with the muscle, dynamism and freedom to achieve these targets.”[6] Attempts had been made to attract foreign investors, particularly from the United States, but “most of the big corporations objected to the government’s stipulation that unprofitable rural lines might have to be built without any guaranteed government subsidy.”[7] The Irish electricity industry had been in existence for forty years, yet the vast majority of the population had been left in darkness and drudgery. As a result of these failings, the fledgling Department of Industry and Commerce concluded that confining the ESB to mere distribution of the energy from the Shannon Scheme was likely to place the whole enterprise in “immediate jeopardy.”[8] The government therefore nationalized what was a piecemeal mess of three hundred expensive, “badly run,” inefficient private and local authority undertakings.[9]

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy: Global Forum on Mexico

By staff - Trade Unions For Energy Democracy, March 25, 2021

Speakers:

  • Heberto Barrios Castillo, Undersecretary, Mexican Energy Ministry- SENER
  • Martín Esparza, General Secretary, Sindicato Mexicano de Electricistas- SME
  • Silvia Ramos Luna, Secretary General, Unión Nacional de Técnicos y Profesionistas Petroleros - UNTyPP
  • Fernando Lopes, trade union consultant in Brazil and former Assistant Secretary General of IndustriALL
  • Ozzi Warwick, Chief Education and Research Officer, Oilfields Workers' Trade Union (OWTU), Trinidad and Tobago

French Energy Union FNME-CGT Endorses TUED Call for Public Energy in Texas

By Staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, March 8, 2021

In a March 8 Press Release, FNME-CGT — the energy and mining division of French trade union confederation CGT — has republished a TUED briefing paper on the recent power sector crisis in Texas. TUED’s briefing paper argued that the recent catastrophic power sector failures in Texas “serve as a stark warning that unregulated, privatized and marketized electricity systems pose a serious threat to human life.”

As we have previously reported in TUED Bulletins 104 and 105, FNME is currently involved in a major struggle by striking French electricity and gas workers in defense of the country’s publicly owned energy company, EDF. The target of the strikes is a set of proposals being advanced by the French government, at the heart of which is a plan to “restructure” the country’s major national power utility, EDF. According to the unions, the proposed changes would undermine EDF’s ability to continue to operate as an integrated public utility, would jeopardize energy security and jobs, and would be against the general public interest.

Over the recent December holiday period, 33 union bodies from 20 countries and regions signed a statement of solidarity with the striking unions and workers.

In support of the striking workers’ defense of EDF, FNME-CGT republished the TUED briefing document with the following additional remarks:

Texas, an extreme example demonstrating that we must say “STOP” to market logics in dealing with the vital common good that energy represents. These same logics, combined with a desire for regional autonomy, have created an anti-citizen cocktail that is becoming a deadly poison!

Confronted with extreme temperatures, many Texas residents have received bills for staggering amounts, up to $17,000. A peak at $9,000 per MWh was reached when the usual seasonal average is $50: capitalists rub their hands… Texans “put on their sweaters” and rub them too, but to keep warm.

The conclusion is therefore clear and indisputable: energy is a vital asset that can no longer be indexed to the financial markets, to the detriment of both commercial and domestic users.

However, while this example rages on, in France, discussions are well underway (for example, EDF’s Hercule project, which only reaffirms the notion of a market) and we are even seeing a new “miracle” tariff offer with a new operator that would index the bill to the price on wholesale energy markets!

Moreover, it is highly likely that generators incompatible with the energy transition will have a bright future ahead of them … a question of survival!

The FNME-CGT condemns this new tariff system where only consumers will sooner or later lose out and where change will mean an increase in fuel poverty.

With support from global union federation Public Services International (PSI), FNME-CGT and TUED are currently working to convene a Trade Union Task Force on Decarbonisation. The Task Force will produce an interim analytical report to guide the development of a “Trade Union Charter for Public Energy in Europe,” which will be debated at a June meeting being convened by the French trade union confederation, CGT.

The June meeting will also bring together social forces from across and beyond Europe to explore and debate a broad range of issues related to the socio-ecological transformation. Unions interested in participating should email Irene Shen at ireneTUED@gmail.com.

Ecosocialism: A Brief Description

By Mike Shaughnessy - London Green Left Blog, January 27, 2021

This is a write up of a talk I gave to my local Green Party meeting in Haringey, north London, a little while back, on ecosocialism. 

Ecosocialism is a green political philosophy - it is an ecocentric and democratic socialism, not to be confused with social democracy, at least in the longer run.

It is not like twentieth century socialisms, it is more like nineteenth century socialisms and owes a fair amount to anarchist theory. Twentieth century socialisms had, if anything, an even more dismal record than capitalism on ecology.

Ecosocialism is anti-capitalist, and sees the capitalist system as the effective cause of the ecological crisis.

Capitalism commodifies everything and puts a price on it, which is exchange value, and uses the earth as a resource for production and sink for the dumping of toxic waste from the production process, usually free of cost. Climate change is the most spectacular aspect of the ecological crisis, but not the only one. Capitalism releases toxic pollution, into the air, land and sea.

Capitalism is unable to solve the ecological crisis it has set going, because the logic of the system is to ‘grow or die’. Growth that is exponential and the earth is now close to its limit of being able to buffer the damage caused by this required infinite growth, on a finite planet.

I’m going to say something about the historical lineage of the philosophy, threads of which can be traced back for as long as human beings have formed communities, where some elements of ecosocialism can be found in the way people have lived in balance with nature. And today, many indigenous peoples around the world still practice some of these forms of social and economic management.

Karl Marx is somewhat of a controversial figure for ecosocialists, with some believing that he was essentially a ‘productivist.’ For myself, I believe that Marx’s work was of its time, and incomplete, but he certainly had a green side to him. Take this quote for example from the third volume of Capital:

From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias, they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition. (Marx 1894: 776). 

In South America ecosocialism has found its way into government. Venezuela, has a Department of Ecosocialism, although the ecosocialism pursued is not the purest in form. Bolivia runs forms of ecosocialism in government and has fought off many capitalist corporations plunder of the country’s natural resources, in mining and gas extraction on common land.

There is an English line too. The first stories to be told about Robin Hood, were of a man fighting against crown enclosures of common land. He has become famous for ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’, but in fact what he was doing, was fighting to stop the rich robbing from the poor.

Then there were the Diggers during the English civil war, who set up communes on common land and called for a ‘common treasury of the land.'

And William Morris, the nineteenth century socialist and craft movement champion. If you read his novel News from Nowhere, it describes an ecosocialist utopia.

In the modern age, ecosocialism emerged in the mid 1980s, in the west, in the United States, although you can argue quite convincingly that in the US it goes back to Murray Bookchin’s social ecology movement in the mid 1960s. And in the east, in India, where to a lesser extent ecosocialism emerged but more so in the philosophy of ecofeminism, which is a similar philosophy to ecosocialism. 

For example, ecosocialists agree with ecofeminists that the oppression of women in our society is part and parcel of the system's domination of nature, reproduction in particular. This is done by the capitalist system co-opting the prevailing patriarchal practices, to extract extra surplus value from the workers, in terms of unpaid domestic labour, without which the system could not function. 

And all for free to the system.

Examples of modern day ecosocialism, to an extent, can be found in the Kurdish area of northern Syria called Rojava and the Zapatistas in Chiapas the most southern state in Mexico.

So, what are the component parts of ecosocialism? There are many, but I’ve selected four of the main ones:

Defending Public Energy, French Energy Unions Build International Support

By Staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, January 17, 2021

As we reported in TUED Bulletin 104, in recent weeks French electricity and gas workers have been striking in defense of the country’s publicly owned energy. These actions have been led by French energy union federations FNME-CGT, CFE-CGC Énergies, FO Energie et Mines and FCE-CFDT.

Over the holiday period, 33 union bodies from 20 countries and regions signed a statement of solidarity with the striking unions and workers.

The target of the strikes is a set of proposals being advanced by the French government, at the heart of which is a plan to “restructure” the country’s major national power utility, EDF. According to the unions, the proposed changes would undermine EDF’s ability to continue to operate as an integrated public utility, would jeopardize energy security and jobs, and would be against the general public interest.

During the week of January 11, 2021, TUED received a letter from the leadership of FNME-CGT, which welcomed the international support that has been expressed, and reaffirmed the union’s commitment to the struggle underway. Jointly signed by Sébastien Menesplier, General Secretary for International Affairs, and Muriel Marcilloux, Federal Secretary for European Affairs, the letter reads, in part:

We are taking action in France for energy: a basic common good and not a commodity that must remain at the service of the general interest. At a time when the challenge of climate change is global, in order to gain the 2°C of the COP 21 in Paris, we will need to switch to electric power, with low- carbon electricity. This will require a commitment from each country. This challenge for the future cannot be met in a market logic where the priority is financial return.

This issue of energy under public control is essential for the future of future generations.

For France, the fight is being waged now. We must lead the fight until the withdrawal of these harmful projects and show that another way other than finance is possible.

Your international support clearly shows that we are not alone in fighting for a quality public energy service accessible to all. Trade unions and their allies know that a just transition cannot be achieved by relying solely on the privatisation, liberalisation and commodification of energy, which is vital for just and sustainable human and economic development.

The letter also stated FNME-CGT’s intention to develop the international dimension of the struggle for public energy, noting in particular the upcoming UN COP26 climate talks scheduled for November of this year. The full letter is available in English here, and in French here.For additional background information, you can read the recent Letter from CGT EDF Directors (in French; English translation available here).

As a next step, the unions will hold a “Day of Action” on Tuesday, January 19th, in a continuing display of opposition to the government’s proposals. On Twitter, you can follow developments directly (in French) via @FNMECGT.

IndustriALL Global Union has also expressed solidarity with the striking workers as part of its ongoing reporting on this crucial struggle over many months.

We encourage unions to share news of this important ongoing struggle in the fight for climate protection and a sustainable future with their members and networks.

Greenpeace USA’s Just Recovery Agenda: A Pathway to a New Economy

By Ryan Schleeter, Amy Moas, Ph.D., and Tim Donaghy, Ph.D. - Greenpeace, November 17, 2020

The economy we have today works for the 1%, not the 99%. The devastation wrought by COVID-19 in the United States—the death, anxiety, isolation, and instability—is the direct result of a system designed to concentrate power in the hands of a few. People are suffering and dying not only because of the virus, but because of the longstanding inequality and racism it has laid bare. This is the same system that has landed us in a climate and extinction crisis in which our very life support system—our planet—is under attack.

As we chart the course toward recovery, we must also confront these social, environmental, and economic injustices at their roots. The centuries-long era of racial capitalism[1]—the system under which wealthy white elites and massive corporations have controlled and exploited land, communities, and cultures to acquire power—must end.

Going back to normal is not an option. The past was not only unjust and inequitable, it was unstable. What we knew as “normal” was a crisis. We must reimagine the systems our country is built on from the ground up. We envision a world where everyone has a good life, where our fundamental needs are met, and where people everywhere have what they need to thrive.

Read the text (PDF).

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