IBEW Local 1245:
[This article is based on an interview with Tom Dalzell, Business Manager of IBEW Local 1245 conducted by Jeremy Brecher. Headquartered in Vacaville in northern California but extending into Nevada, Local 1245 has more than 18,000 members, 12,000 in Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the rest in nearly 100 signatory contractors with labor agreements.
Q: How and why did Local 1245 get involved in climate issues?
TD: There is a nexus between climate issues and jobs. We looked at what happened to the auto workers in the 1970s, the Teamsters in the 1970s and 1980s, the communications workers in the 1990s. We knew big changes were coming to our industry, and we were concerned that whatever the changes were, if we were in a game of musical chairs we wanted to be in a chair at the end when the music stopped.
Q: People often ask, how can unions deal with plant closings that threaten their members’ jobs?
TD: In the late 1990s, PGE closed all its fossil fuel plants. The union was able to address these closings through retention, and severance, and at the end preferential bidding for other jobs. If a person took the money to stay, they would have good bidding rights at the end. Some left early; the company filled in for them with employees from the hiring hall. It took three to four years to work it out. But between retention, severance, and bidding rights few if any members were laid off when the plants went away.
We applied the same approach when smart meters were introduced. PGE had 750 meter readers. Most would and did lose their jobs when smart meters were installed. Some were retained. But our strategy was time, severance, and bidding. The process took at least five years. Employees close to retirement would stay and pick up the severance when they approached retirement. We moved from 750 to fewer than 100 with zero layoffs. All were either retired or retrained.
Our most recent experience was with the closing of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. We used precisely the same formula: time, retention, severance, and the ability to bid on remaining the jobs. We added one other component: Our members can work on decommissioning the plant after it stops operating in 2024 or 2025. Typically that is done by contractors, not utility workers. But this will extend employment, especially for some of our younger workers, by at least ten years. At Diablo Canyon we worked with environmental groups, which we hadn’t done elsewhere. We did so to help get the time for transition for employees and to prepare for carbon-free replacement power. Otherwise the only power available would have been gas-generated, would mean the shutdown could have led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
Q: How has the union become involved with fossil free energy?
TD: PGE went big for solar, utility owned and utility scale solar. One downside of green energy, in contrast to natural gas stations, for example, is that there are few operating or maintaining jobs. So we trained up our contractor workforce to do the installation. Part of green economy is a vibrant, smart grid; our members are the ones who are making the grid smarter and stronger.
Initially our motivation was that we did not want to be adversely affected by changes in the industry. Now we also address energy policy on the merits. We fully support utility scale generation, storage, and pump storage. We have a strong preference for community-based, large-scale grid, and utility-scale energy programs. They provide better jobs. More customers have access. And they are less expensive.
We are skeptical about residential rooftop solar. It is expensive, so it is only available to the wealthy. Net metering can end up being a subsidy from the poor to the rich. For example, Solar City, which is now owned by Tesla, bundled solar leases and sold them to investment banks. The poorest ratepayers ended up subsidizing net metering. Rooftop solar is really not economical, and it has created injustice through its subsidies. The same with Tesla batteries. We believe in community- or large-scale grid storage. Not every man a king, a la Tesla.
Q: Your union is known for its outreach to younger workers. Is there a connection between younger workers and the climate issue?
TD: There is a value connection between younger workers and the climate issue: the younger the worker is, the greener their energy policies are.
Both our involvement with climate issues and our outreach to young workers represent trying to position ourselves to not be like the UAW, CWA, or Teamsters in the face of vast changes in our industry. We don’t want to just be a footnote in labor history as these changes come.