I rarely, if ever, remember the weather conditions when I turn in at night. But I remember them last October — Sunday, Oct. 8, to be exact. The winds that night in Vacaville were fierce, literally howling. I thought to myself that we would be lucky to get through the night without losing power, but surprisingly, we never did. The next morning, as I pulled out of the driveway shortly before dawn, the winds had died down some. But as I headed off to work I noticed a faint but unmistakable orange tinge in the sky to the west, which in an odd way mirrored the sky in the east, where the sun would shortly rise. The eerie sky raised internal alarm bells, and I switched on the radio. The news was stunning — a fire had roared down a hillside in Santa Rosa and breached Highway 101, and entire neighborhoods and subdivisions were caught up in the inferno. I tried calling my stepmom, who lived in the Larkfield area of Santa Rosa, in a house that she and my late Dad had bought in 2004. The call went straight to voicemail, which was I odd, I thought, since it never had done that before. With a rapidly growing sense of unease, I drove in to work.
As I arrived at my job, it was apparent that this was a disaster of unimaginable proportions. The reports on the radio sounded apocalyptic with a dash of hysteria. It was with great relief that I finally heard back from my Stepmom later that morning. By a twist of fate, she had left her home Sunday to visit family in Minnesota. She realized something was wrong when both my brother and I tried to call her early on a Monday morning. As for the fate of her house, she was in the dark. She attempted to call her neighbors, but phone service into the area was down. For the next day and a half, we would both try without success to get an answer.
By the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 10, information about the fire was still sketchy and unreliable. Piecing together various reports from the media, I knew that the area of my Stepmom’s house had been hit hard. With information at a premium, and my Stepmom still unsuccessful in contacting neighbors, I decided to email a co-worker in Santa Rosa to see if they knew anything. This person (who shall remain nameless but to whom I’m forever grateful), said there was a field employee in the area doing emergency work and could go by the address to check the status of the house. For the next three hours, I sat and waited-expecting the worst, but hoping for the best. At 3:36pm, an email from Santa Rosa arrived.
There was no text in that email — just a photo attachment, and a sad face emoji. I opened the photo and discovered that the house was gone. Nothing much remained but three stone columns at the entry way. Though by now I had expected this outcome, it still felt like a punch to the gut. Everything that remained of my Dad’s life was lost. And more importantly, everything my Stepmom owned, except for what she put in her suitcase that past Sunday, was reduced to ash. I can’t imagine the pain and devastation she felt- nor how my 29 IBEW 1245 brothers and sisters who also lost their homes felt, losing everything in a matter of minutes.
When the California Legislature convened a few months later, they faced the monumental task of dealing with the wildfires that had devastated the northern state the preceding October. Altogether, the firestorm has burned over 250,000 acres, destroyed nearly 9,000 structures, and killed 44 people. The Legislature took a first step on Jan. 16, when State Senator Bill Dodd of Napa introduced legislation that addressed compensation for the fire victims, utility responsibility and solvency, as well as measures to mitigate potential wildfire risks moving forward. The bill was incredibly ambitious, and faced an uphill battle littered with roadblocks, with a vote for final passage still many months and many committee hearings away.
Getting a bill through the California Legislature is a long and tortured process. From its inception as SB 1088 in January, through its many committee hearings, and then on to the special wildfire conference committee, where most of the key components of the original bill were absorbed into the committee’s report (known as SB 901) and subsequently expanded upon, and finally to its climatic vote on August 31st, IBEW 1245 was instrumental every step of the way. Scores of 1245 Organizing Stewards were released into the halls of the Capitol, spreading the word in a firm and insightful voice. Between Committee hearings, office visits, and general rabble-rousing, the stewards racked up an impressive ten trips to the Capitol.
“We used our long-established relationships with Democrats, our new relationships with business-minded Republicans, and for the first time legislatively, our army of Organizing Stewards,” IBEW 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell said as he detailed the legislative process.
After months of work during the spring and summer, the stage was finally set for a showdown in August as the legislature convened its first-ever wildfire conference committee, comprised of five Senators and five Assemblymembers from both sides of the aisle.
As the Legislature stared down at its Aug.31 deadline to pass legislation, IBEW 1245 staff, leaders and a phalanx of more than 100 Organizing Stewards stormed the Capitol on Monday, Aug. 27, taking democracy to the next step as they badgered and cajoled every Senator and Assemblymember in the building. The following evening, the conference committee released its draft legislation, and although it wasn’t perfect, it contained almost all of the key components that Local 1245 had advocated for — requiring utilities to harden the electric grid against wildfires in the future, ensuring funds to help compensate wildfire victims, authorizing bonds to finance utility liability for the 2017 fires; and, in a huge win for our members, creating robust worker protections in the event of a utility bankruptcy, sale, or change of control that could come as a result of the wildfires and ensuing liability.
The Senate and Assembly were scheduled to vote on the bill on the very last day of the legislative session. So on that day, Friday, Aug. 31, Local 1245 was back in force at the Capitol with all hands on deck. According to Local 1245 staff Organizer Eileen Purcell, “We got the call from Bob Dean at 2pm on Thursday afternoon. We gave folks one hour to recruit… it was amazing! 83 organizing stewards, prospects, and volunteers answered the call.”
Putting in one final herculean effort, organizers and staff once again visited every member of the California Legislature in their offices for last-minute, intense lobbying. By late afternoon, the blitz was over, and there was nothing left to do but wait for Senator Dodd’s bill to be voted on. Finally, around 11pm on Friday night, with just minutes until the deadline, the passage of SB 901 was secured, and the bill was sent to the Governor’s desk, where it was signed into law on Sept. 21.
“This is one of 1245’s greatest political achievements,” declared Dalzell, “and we accomplished it in the face of strong and powerful opposition.”
Stern joked that “We should build a statue to Sen. Dodd!” – and there’s an interesting story behind that quip. Back in 2014, in a race for the Assembly District 4 seat, Stern saw something labor-friendly in then-candidate Dodd, and despite the fact that many other unions had endorsed Dodd’s opponent, Local 1245 backed Dodd — and he ended up winning. Four years later, it came as no surprise that Sen. Dodd stood with IBEW and delivered.
There were many 1245 staffers who played a key role in the passage of SB901- from Senior Assistant Business Manager Bob Dean, who spent hours at the Capitol testifying to committees and marshaling the troops; to Assistant Business Manager Hunter Stern, who committed months to lobbying and educating the legislators; to Organizers Fred Ross Jr, Eileen Purcell, and Rene Cruz-Martinez, who employed their adept maneuvering of a potent, new force and face of Labor known as the Organizing Stewards; and finally to Business Manager Tom Dalzell, whose years of experience in the world of Labor politics — combined with the clout that he and 1245 carried — finally won the day. And let’s not forget the Coalition of California Utility Employees team, including lobbyist Scott Wetch and lawyer Marc Joseph — the strategy and determination to execute this policy was formed principally by them, and if not for all the time and effort the put into SB 1088, we may not have gotten SB 901 over the finish line.
This satisfying result came at a steep price of course, as my Stepmom, my 29 union brothers and sisters, and all of the other fire victims who are slowly get their lives back on track can attest. In the end, no statues will be built, but we can proudly place another brick in the wall that is 1245’s indisputable reputation as the nation’s preeminent activist local. And while the road of labor battles seemingly goes on forever, 1245 has the vehicles to not only make the journey, but to relish it.
–Kevin Krummes, IBEW 1245 Organizing Steward