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(TUED Bulletin #78) Hothouse Politics? Struggles for Energy Democracy Heating Up

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 2, 2018

Struggles around energy are proliferating globally. Working people, trade unions, communities and even some elected governments increasingly understand that the impacts of decisions about energy affect us all, and that there is an urgent need for bold, informed action to reclaim democratic control of energy resources, infrastructure and options.

In this TUED Bulletin, we highlight several recent developments that show a bit of the range of things that are happening:

  • South Africa: Unions, Allies Prepare for Power Struggle
  • Australia: National Union of Workers Launches “Cooperative Power”
  • Australia: Queensland Labor Government Announces New Public Renewable Energy Company: “CleanCo”
  • Transport: ITF Calls for “Massively Expanding Public Transport Now”
  • Frontline Communities: “It Takes Roots: Solutions to Solidarity” (Sol2Sol) Week
  • Next System Project Issues Bold Call for Public Ownership of Energy
  • Canadian Public Sector Union NUPGE Joins TUED

South Africa: Unions, Allies Prepare for Power Struggle

TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney recently participated the international conference on “The Role of Public Utilities in Transforming the Energy Sector,” a jointly convened by the Alternative Information and Development Center, (AIDC), Transnational Institute (TNI) and TUED. The meeting took place in Johannesburg, September 3-5, 2018.

The 40-person gathering included key unions including the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the new federation, South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), led by Zwelinzima Vavi.

Discussions were animated by the fact that struggles around energy in South Africa have grown in intensity in recent months. The coal-dependent public power utility, Eskom, is engaged in a high-stakes and high-profile public battle with private renewable energy interests, including “Independent Power Producers” (IPPs). In its efforts to address ongoing capacity-balancing and financing challenges, Eskom has threatened to close coal-fired power stations, leaving tens of thousands of union members without employment.

NUMSA and SAFTU have formulated a clear and strong response, calling for the radical restructuring of Eskom, and social ownership of the renewables sector. That approach was reaffirmed earlier this year in an OpEd authored by NUMSA’s Deputy General Secretary Karl Cloete and published by South Africa’s Daily Maverick. Making reference to TUED, Cloete explained the union’s firm opposition to “capitalist capture of renewable energy,” and its support for a “socially owned and democratic alternative.” The piece takes forward a position NUMSA has been advocating since at least 2011, and which was also described in TUED Bulletin #66: Should Unions Strike for a Just Transition?

More information on the conference, including the full program and video recordings of key sessions, is available here.

In the coming months TUED will be working with TNI and AIDC in developing a clear energy vision for South Africa that is consistent with NUMSA’s and SAFTU’s programmatic commitments.

Australia: National Union of Workers Launches “Cooperative Power”

In Australia, trade unions and allies recently launched Cooperative Power, a new, democratically structured energy retailer, in an effort to help build an energy system that is clean, sustainable, affordable and democratic. The initiative aims to “take the power back from huge energy corporations for the benefit of people and our planet.”

Cooperative Power is structured as an “enterprise cooperative,” bringing together trade unions, community groups, NGOs, and other cooperatives to democratize decision-making over how electric power is generated for its members, and how much it costs. Founding members include:

Profits that accrue from sales will be used to empower workers and their communities throughout Australia to establish similar worker- and community-owned renewable energy generation efforts, and to support wider efforts for climate justice—including the work of Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA and NUW, both valued participants in TUED.

In its initial phase, Cooperative Power will offer services to members in South-East Queensland and New South Wales. The new retailer’s services will be available to the rank-and-file members of its participating associations—currently 75,000 rank-and-file members across its participating organizations. In the coming weeks, the project anticipates being able to announce expansion of its service area into South Australia and Victoria.

Read more about the project here.

Australia: Queensland Labor Government Announces New Public Renewable Energy Company: “CleanCo”

Also in Australia, the Queensland Labor Government led by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has launched its own new publicly owned, renewable energy power generation company, called CleanCo. The new company, wholly owned by the provincial government, is expected to add downward pressure on retail electricity prices, and is projected to save households roughly AU$70 (~US$50) each year.

At the launch, the provincial premier said, “We have already made great progress on keeping power prices low, due in large part to our commitment to keep our assets in public hands. CleanCo will go even further to help deliver cheaper and more reliable energy for all Queenslanders – from mum and dad consumers right up to large industrial users.”

The company will have “a strategic portfolio of low and no emission power generation assets, and will build, construct, own and maintain renewable energy generation,” according to Deputy Premier Jackie Trad. “This will continue supporting jobs in our renewable energy industry, starting with 1000MW of new renewables like solar, wind and hydro.”

The company will be Queensland’s third government-owned energy generator. The provincial government is putting AU$250 million (US$180 million) into new, publicly owned, renewable energy generation assets for the company, which is expected to be operational and trading on the country’s national electricity market by mid-2019.

In support of the project, the provincial government will also establish a “Just Transition Group” to “ensure that the energy transition in Queensland was just and equitable for affected workers and communities.” An Advisory Committee will also be established to help develop a “Just Transition Policy Framework,” with participation from the province’s publicly owned energy companies, relevant unions, stakeholder groups, Jobs Queensland, the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, Queensland Treasury and the Office of Industrial Relations.

Read more about the launch here.

“It Takes Roots: Solutions to Solidarity” (Sol2Sol) Week

TUED’s Outreach Coordinator, Irene HongPing Shen, participated in the It Takes Roots Alliance “Solutions to Solidarity” (Sol2Sol) Week, held September 8-14, in San Francisco, California. Activities ranged from workshops on community-based issues and solutions related to climate change, to protests demanding an end to false market-based solutions to climate change.

The week was organized in response to California Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS), which took place September 12-14, 2018. GCAS brought together Mayor’s from around the world, big NGOs, US labor leaders and multinational corporations with the goal of building a stronger “green growth” plan to challenge Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Agreement and his climate change denialism.

The week was kicked off by a march on September 8th where approximately 30,000 marchers gathered. Martha Hawthorne of SEIU Local 1021, a TUED union, played a major role in coordinating the labor contingent and helped bring together 700 union members marching for better climate solutions.

The Energy Democracy National Tour hosted an event at Sol2Sol with organizations which had events on their tour, of which TUED was one, along with other U.S. based organizations working on local community energy democracy solutions.  Together, we discussed our respective work and explored topics, including the possibility of two-pronged solutions of nationalization of the energy sector and local ownership of energy grids, a joint effort toward addressing oppression and democratized control of energy.

On September 12, the University of California Berkeley Labor Center hosted a Labor Conference. TUED unions NUMSA and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) presented and spoke on public ownership.  Sharon Modiba, Senior Researcher at NUMSA, explained that socially owned power is a necessary measure to advance agendas of the working class, to have continued uninterrupted work, and to effectively transition into and control a new renewable energy sector.

Alana Dave, Education Officer of ITF, explained how ITF’s Our Public Transport campaign challenges the current model of public transport to address climate goals, increase accessibility of public transport to millions of workers (many whom are informal), and reclaims the meaning of “public,” to emphasize that this doesn’t need merely to refer to public services, but that values and helps advance a broad, pro-public agenda. (See also the following item on ITF’s announced support for a massive expansion of public transport.)

Transport: ITF Calls for “Massively Expanding Public Transport Now”

At an event during the San Francisco Global Climate Action Summit (described above), the International Transport Worker’s Federation (ITF) announced its support for a declaration to create zero-emissions cities by 2030.

According to the ITF’s General Secretary Stephen Cotton, “The ITF and its affiliates are ready to support the declaration in real and tangible ways. We recognise that if we act now and act together, dangerous climate change can be averted. That’s why the ITF is here at GCAS making the case for massively expanding public transport now.”

The ITF is a global union federation representing over 20 million transport workers in 145 countries. The announcement was made in the context of the Global Climate Action Summit, in San Francisco, USA. The statement is in support of the Green and Healthy Streets Declaration by the C40 cities, which was announced in Paris in October 2017.

In its statement the ITF and its affiliates commit to supporting the Declaration by:

  • Working in partnerships with mayors and cities to ensure that the transition to fossil-fuel-free streets is a just transition that creates decent jobs, reduces inequality, and drives inclusion and improvements in the lives of working class and low-income people.
  • Building partnerships with mayors and city authorities to develop and integrate just transition plans that drive decent work and social action, including labour impact assessments, safeguards and job targets for men and women workers.
  • Mobilising workers knowledge and skills to shape and enhance the supportive actions needed to meet the commitments in the Declaration.
  • Working in partnerships with mayors and city authorities to deliver a just transition to zero emission buses, including developing plans for relevant worker training.
Read the full statement here.

Next System Project Issues Bold Call for Public Ownership of Energy

The U.S.-based Next System Project—an initiative of The Democracy Collaborative—has published a bold analysis, “Public Ownership for Energy Democracy,” making the case for urgently reclaiming energy systems to public ownership, and restructuring them for democratic control. Drawing on the experience and expertise of a broad group of researchers, theorists and activists, the project is working to “promote visions, models and pathways that point to a ‘next system’ radically different in fundamental ways from the failed systems of the past and present and capable of delivering superior social, economic and ecological outcomes.”

In the piece—published in early September as part of a series of papers aimed at “taking climate action to the next level”—author Johanna Bozuwa writes:

“Energy democracy… seeks to take on the political and economic change needed to tackle the energy transition holistically. A democratic energy system powered by renewables (and free of fossil fuels) would distribute wealth, power, and decision-making equitably….

“Public ownership of utilities can accelerate the renewable energy transition at the scale needed to meet our closing climate deadline for action. It’s simply too late to provide piecemeal incentives and then wait expectantly for a market controlled by fossil fuel interests to voluntarily deploy more renewables. Energy utilities’ control over so much of the energy supply chain make these entities a strategic platform for bringing energy democracy tactics to scale. Harnessing energy utilities for the people could fuel projects from expansive low-income housing efficiency projects (such as PUSH Buffalo),2 to community solar programs (such as the solar gardens of Cooperative Energy Futures in Minnesota),3 to stopping gas pipelines (such as the resistance to Dominion Power’s Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia).”

Read the full piece here.

National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) Joins TUED

TUED is pleased to welcome Canada’s National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) as the latest participating union. NUPGE represents some 390,000 members, mostly in the provincial public service sector.

On presenting the union’s decision to join, Larry Brown, President of NUPGE, said:

“Our members live in a world being damaged by climate change, and our members are on the front lines in dealing with the effects of climate change.  Our members fight the forest fires, provide Emergency Medical Services when floods and fires happen, provide healthcare to the wounded, provide resources to those driven from their homes and communities.  We are the collective arm of the state, in operation on the ground where it matters.

“We have joined TUED because we agree with the slogan, “Solidarity for Survival.” We agree that trade unions, organizations of working people, must lead the way.  And we agree that democratic control over energy, turning control over energy and its uses to the public, is crucial to our future.

“We are thrilled to join with thoughtful and dedicated trade unionists around the world to fight for a better, safer world.”

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.

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