Bankruptcy would be a disaster for workers and consumers
The wildfires our state experienced last year were unprecedented destruction and loss of life. To many, myself included, the scope of the damage seemed unimaginable – how, in 2017, could a disaster of that magnitude occur? We are all looking for the causes of the fires so we can stop them from ever happening again, and looking to support the many victims and their families. IBEW 1245 linemen were some of the first responders on the scene, working relentlessly to limit the damage and get the gas and power back on safely in affected communities.
As we search for answers, there is always the desire to assign blame. And that’s fair. If there was negligence or disregard for procedure, a price should be paid. But even though CalFire has yet to release their official report on what caused the fires, some in Sacramento have already decided that PG&E alone should bear responsibility for the losses.
The trial lawyers and their allies are arguing that if the company’s equipment was involved in any way – even if PG&E followed every law, operated in good faith and was not negligent – it should pay out the full damages incurred by the fire, which are estimated to be above $9 billion. Forcing PG&E, a single company, to absorb that loss by itself could bankrupt the company – and that would be a disaster for IBEW 1245 members and the state of California as a whole.
The implications of a PG&E bankruptcy would be terrible and long lasting for our union. Make no mistake – when a company goes bankrupt, it’s the workers who bear the brunt of the pain. Chapter 11, section 1113 of the Bankruptcy Code says that “if essential to the continuation of the debtor’s business” the court can permit the debtor to make changes to collective bargaining agreements. That means the company would be able to sweep away gains that took us years – even decades – to negotiate. It would put the union in a far less advantageous position than other debtors, and could significantly erode wage and benefit gains.
In early 2001, when PG&E went bankrupt due to market manipulation instigated by Enron, it took three years for the company to rebuild. During that time, IBEW 1245 led a coalition of other unions to hold on to our jobs, and ultimately we were successful – but it clearly set us back.
In the wake of a bankruptcy, the union has far less power to negotiate wage increases and benefits our members have earned. In some ways, we would be starting from scratch – the company would not be forced to consider the residual value that our workers bring to the table with their years of knowledge and experience. That’s why I’m doing everything in my power to help the company avoid filing for Chapter 11.
A bankruptcy or other breakup of PG&E would also be bad for safety. Ever since San Bruno, a coordinated effort directing billions of dollars in upgrades to the system has made the lines, valves and infrastructure far safer to operate and support (although we still have a long way to go). A bankruptcy could disrupt this progress, making the system less safe and accidents more likely.
Functional, reliable utilities like PG&E are essential to our success – they create good jobs, provide safe and reliable power for our homes and businesses, and help move us closer to our clean energy goals. The wildfires were a crisis of epic proportion, and one that we will be rebuilding from for years. I am working as hard as I can to make sure bankruptcy doesn’t compound 2017’s trauma and disaster for our members, and for all Californians.
–Tom Dalzell, IBEW 1245 Business Manager