By Tom Dalzell, Business Manager
The loss of Howard Stiefer several weeks ago is a loss without measure. As all who knew him know, Howard was an extraordinary man – a journeyman’s journeyman, a unionist’s unionist, a leader’s leader. As a Local 1245 member, a Local 1245 officer, an Assistant Business Manager, and lastly a wise man in retirement, Howard made contributions to Local 1245 that will outlast any of us who remember him. We miss him and will miss him, thank him and will continue thanking him. May he rest in peace.
A close observer of Local 1245 would be struck by the outpouring of member involvement over the last few months. We are a fairly predictable organization when it comes to membership involvement– perhaps 1,000 members attend a unit meeting each month, and perhaps a quarter of our shop stewards attend shop steward training, but besides that one doesn’t expect to see a high level of visible membership activity. With only a few exceptions, we haven’t invited the type of large-scale membership activity that some other unions do. Our members are well-informed and have strong opinions when it comes to events affecting their work lives, but our union hasn’t made a priority of attracting attention from the wider public.
In the last half year that has changed. We are still seeing 1,000 members a month at unit meetings (a remarkable fact when you come right down to it), but on top of that we have seen an unprecedented surge of membership involvement.
Hundreds, perhaps even a thousand of our members and retirees from NV Energy have attended rallies, picket lines, and vigils over the last months, and they have walked door to door in communities hit by NV Energy’s service cuts.
Our members at the City of Redding have through public actions been the tip of the spear in fighting off planned elimination of retiree medical benefits for future hires, anti-worker ballot initiatives, outsourcing of essential city services, and concessionary company bargaining demands.
Hundreds of our Clerical members at PG&E have attended IBEW Code of Excellence meetings and thousands more will in the coming weeks and months, affirming their commitment to be a productive, professional, dedicated union workforce. During the month of March hundreds of Clerical bargaining unit members from PG&E will attend special drop-in meetings to discuss upcoming negotiations with PG&E for the clerical contract.
In February, thousands of our members attended special safety meetings to hear Jeff “Odie” Espenship preach the gospel of workplace safety, and hundreds more will attend his presentations in March and April. We are seeing unprecedented numbers of stewards attending stewards training sessions – close to 90% of our stewards are coming to spend a day with our administrative staff, improving their skills as the frontline troops in our efforts on behalf of our members. This is service awards season, and again we are seeing a huge turnout of our membership for these dinners honoring their service to Local 1245.
These are extraordinarily difficult times for American workers, and our members have been quick to react. They have not waited until it is too late, but have stepped up to confront problems and challenges directly and early. This doesn’t happen without hard work from our workplace leadership and staff, but it also doesn’t happen without a membership that is willing to do all that it takes to preserve and build upon the great work of members who have gone before us – members like Howard Stiefer.
One political issue that our members in California are watching very carefully is a state ballot initiative, Proposition 16, which guarantees taxpayers and utility customers the right to vote on any proposed municipalization of utility services.
As things now stand, governing boards can make sweeping changes in energy delivery without seeking approval of the customers who would be affected by the changes. For example, Shell Oil Company is very close to becoming the energy provider for the citizens of Marin County – without any voter input. Shell has concentrated its considerable persuasive power on a handful of elected leaders in Marin County, confident that the issue will never be put to Marin’s taxpayers and voters – voters who may still remember the Enron debacle and may not feel particularly warm and fuzzy about Shell Oil Company’s green credentials.
Proposition 16 would make such a stealth attack by big oil – or a big bank, in the case of the San Joaquin valley CCA effort – subject to voter approval. It is hard to imagine why a vote on an issue like this would be a bad thing. In fact, responsible public power providers such as SMUD have had no objection to putting annexation plans on the ballot, have campaigned for their position, and have accepted the will of the voters.
Local 1245’s support for Proposition 16 has to do with supporting good government; it has nothing to do with the question of public power versus private investor-owned utilities. Our support for public power – when it is in the interests of our members – is very clear.
Most recently, we have been fighting vigorously to preserve public power in the City of Redding. We supported our members at Truckee Meadows Water Authority in their amazing grass roots campaign in 2008 to oppose the privatization of water. We staunchly defended public power when the City of Lodi was experiencing financial difficulties in the wake of the Enron-driven energy crisis in California, and we defended public power when SMUD was facing harsh criticism and possible collapse in the light of poor performance at its Rancho Seco nuclear generating station. All of these actions through the years should leave no doubt as to our support for public power.
We do, however, worry about changes in energy providers because of the disruption it brings to the lives of our members. Whether it is an effort to privatize existing public power, an effort to municipalize existing investor-owned power, or an effort to replace regulated investor-owned power companies with unregulated, profit-maximizing merchant companies, our members lose. And we are in the business of making sure that our members don’t lose.
We have good and strong relationships with both private and public utilities, and we value both models. We support Proposition 16 because of our belief that if a big oil company like Shell is going to move in and supplant a regulated utility as the energy provider, the decision to do so should be made by the affected customers, not by several dozen local officials.
Our union’s mission is to defend the best interests of our members. And that is what we will do.