June 5, 2015

Power to the People: Toward Democratic Control of Electricity Generation


Trade Unions for Energy Democracy’s fourth working paper. In the last years, “energy democracy” has become a part of the international trade union discourse on energy and climate change. A growing number of unions and regional bodies, like the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas, are calling for democratic control over energy, a “reclaiming” of the energy sector to the public sphere, and a just transition to a renewables-based, low-carbon economy.

Power to the People: Toward Democratic Control of Electricity Generation starts by examining 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. The working paper then aims to flesh out 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.

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, Kylie Benton-Connell, and Lara Skinner, will explore concrete possibilities for moving toward this goal. And make no mistake: unions will need to take part, if not take the lead, in this struggle for economic and environmental justice.

Reactions to Power to the People:

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.