Editor's Notes

Labor and public power: a curious entanglement


Back in 2001, San Francisco came within 500 votes of approving a public power system in an election marred by lingering evidence of fraud. Ballot boxes were removed from the Department of Elections (under a bizarre, never-documented threat of anthrax poisoning) and box tops were later found floating in the bay. I still think we actually won that election. And it's hard to see how we could have done it without organized labor.

The Central Labor Council backed public power. Service Employees International Union Local 790 poured resources into it. The labor-environmental coalition that came together around building a city-run system that would rely on clean energy was unprecedented.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. knows this. That's why the company is trying mightily to keep labor from backing this year's Clean Energy Act. And at the center of that battle is Mayor Gavin Newsom's chief political consultant and close advisor, Eric Jaye.

The Clean Energy Act, as we point out on page 5, would give the city control of its energy future and put San Francisco at the forefront of national efforts to reduce carbon emissions. It also opens the door to public power — and Jaye has been hired by PG&E to try to keep the supervisors from putting it on the ballot, and to defeat it if they do.

He has a powerful weapon to use: labor's determination to pass a giant bond act to rebuild San Francisco General Hospital.

A billion-dollar bond act is a tough sell, and harder still during a recession. Labor is also making a big push for progressive supervisorial candidates in Districts 1, 3, and 11. And the labor council director, Tim Paulson, tells me that he really wants to keep the city's disparate and sometimes fractious labor unions united around those goals.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, PG&E's union, will oppose any public power measure, any time, no matter what it says, and IBEW walked out of the labor council in 2001 over the issue. Now Jaye is telling labor people that the Clean Energy Act (and other issues that are "crowding" the ballot) may undermine public support for the hospital bond. "I have an early poll showing that these other measures have a negative impact on the hospital," Jaye told me. "I have been pointing to that fact and asking if we really need to do [the Clean Energy Act] this year."

John Whitehurst, who is running the SF General bond campaign, says his polls show that there was no correlation between an affordable housing set-aside measure and the hospital bonds, and presumably the same is true of the Clean Energy Act. On the other hand, he says, "if Jaye runs a campaign that says 'Gee, the city can't do anything right,' it could create problems for the hospital measure."

Would Eric Jaye threaten the SF General bonds (which his client, Gavin Newsom, strongly backs) to keep labor from backing public power? He insisted to me that he would never do that, and that he and the mayor fully back the bonds. But PG&E, I think, cares nothing about the hospital — or the city — and will do whatever it can to scuttle this measure.

So will labor be intimidated by the threat of divisiveness (from the IBEW) and the political scare tactics from PG&E — or will labor leaders tell the mayor to knock it off?

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