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(Working Paper #4) Power to the People: Toward Democratic Control of Electricity Generation

Press Release - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, June 24, 2015

Unions welcome new report highlighting the need to ‘reclaim’ and democratize the energy system and to promote publicly owned renewable power

Globally, the energy system is failing to protect workers and communities.  Airborne and water pollution levels are out of control, especially in Asia. Energy-related emissions continue to rise as more fossil-based power comes on line. Union leaders say the struggle for democratic control of electrical power generation is central to the struggle for a healthier, safer and fairer world. A major scale-up of publicly owned but democratically controlled renewable power is required. Public renewable power will make it possible to conserve energy, control and then reduce demand, and begin to make transport as well as electrical power less dependent on fossil fuels. A truly “just transition” for workers and communities will require re-asserting the public good over private greed.

A new Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) working paper titled Power to the People: Toward Democratic Control of Electricity Generation shows how “another energy is possible, and absolutely necessary.” It succinctly explains the failure of profit-driven approaches to either emissions reductions or controlling energy demand. The TUED paper, published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung–New York Office, examines the actual and potential content behind the term energy democracy in order to help unions get a better grasp of what is happening now and what could happen in the future. It discusses the major “fronts” on which the struggle for democratic control of power generation is currently expressing itself: cooperatives in the renewable energy sector and their potential contribution to energy democracy, as well as recent attempts to reclaim electrical power generation at the municipal level. The 4-part paper also examines the historical experience of the “public works” approach to energy transition during the New Deal in the United States and, in particular, the Rural Electrification Administration—a model of state-cooperative interaction and partnership replicated successfully in numerous countries during the post-World War II period. It proposes that a “Renewable Energy Administration” is needed today.

Unions and social movements have the power to help create a new energy system, one that will be located at the heart of a new political economy grounded in equity, true sustainability, and economic democracy. This paper, co-authored by Sean Sweeney (Murphy Institute, CUNY) Kylie Benton-Connell (New School for Social Research) and Lara Skinner (Worker Institute at Cornell) explores concrete possibilities for moving toward this goal.

According to Sweeney, the coordinator of TUED, “The paper is not a blueprint. It shows what is happening, and also what needs to happen in order to reduce emissions and pollution in a way that shifts power toward workers and communities. Its main message is, if we want to control atmospheric warming and to protect our common home, then we have to get serious about reclaiming and democratizing energy.  Unions in different countries and from all sectors are increasingly aware of the need to do this.”


Michael D. Langford, President, Utility Workers Union of America:

The Utility Workers Union of America fully supports reclaiming the utilities and the power generation sector in order to serve the public good. America’s energy infrastructure – both physical and human – is in terrible condition. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is leaking everywhere as a result of crumbling pipes. Meanwhile, workers in coal-fired power stations are being kicked to the curb by greedy corporations. Whole communities have been left stranded. My union believes in a planned and just energy transition, and a scale-up of renewable energy under public control as a means of creating good jobs and addressing climate change. But the key issue for us is democratic control and decision-making driven by the public good and not private gain. This is a fight we are willing to wage, because our collective future depends on it.

RoseAnn DeMoro, Executive Director, National Nurses United:

Nurses unions from all over the world will wholeheartedly embrace the approach taken by the latest TUED report Power to the People. In 2012, more than seven million deaths were attributed to exposure to fossil fuels, and the health impacts of climate change, such as the spread of malaria and dengue fever, as well as extreme weather events like superstorm Sandy and typhoon Yolanda, are claiming the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable. The fight for democratic control of energy will therefore be a fight for the health and welfare of billions of people. Public and democratic control offers the only way to deploy clean and renewable energy in a way that allows for climate justice, serious levels of job creation, and a truly ‘just transition’ for workers presently working with fossil fuels. It will also be a fight to defend basic democratic rights — which are being eviscerated all around the world by large oil, coal and gas companies who have politicians in their back pockets.

Lawrence Hanley, President Amalgamated Transit Union:

The Amalgamated Transit Union believes that public mass transportation systems will play a big role in a low-carbon world. The development of electric vehicles run on renewable sources of power is also critically important. But what stands in the way of a modern, clean and accessible public transport service is the political and economic power of the likes of the Koch Brothers and their political friends who are waging a war on everything public. We can and must reclaim energy and particularly electricity generation for the public good – because a dramatic scale up of public renewable power will help ensure that the next generation of trains and buses will serve communities, and help us win the war on traffic congestion and airborne pollution. We must put the public back in charge of both the energy and the transport systems. People and the planet are demanding nothing less.

Naomi Klein, author, This Changes Everything:

The TUED paper Power to the People has defined one of the most important collective tasks: to democratize key sectors of our economy, with electricity generation as perhaps the most pressing of such sectors given its role in fueling climate change, poor health, and the displacement of communities. The paper’s detailed and facts-based approach will help unions and their allies in the climate justice movement to find ways to resist particularly damaging forms of extraction, as well as to begin to take power generation back city by city, region by region, and nation by nation. The new climate and people-friendly economy won’t be “incentivized” into existence – it will be unleashed by the power of unions, social movements and organized communities, struggling together to reclaim key aspects of economic life for the common good.

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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