Power to the People: Public Ownership of PG&E

In California, when you can’t pay your bill, Pacific Gas and Electric turns off your electric power. But when investor-owned PG&E can’t pay what it owes, it goes to the courts and state legislature for relief. After deadly forest fires caused by its negligence, in January, PG&E filed for Chapter 11, a form of bankruptcy where the debtor (in this case, PG&E) retains possession of the company while a court oversees its progression back to solvency.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has held PG&E’s hand through the process and authorized $6 billion in bank loans the day before PG&E’s bankruptcy filing, violating state utility code and preventing transparent independent review.

Decades of putting profit before safety left PG&E with unreliable and fire-prone equipment. Neglect coupled with hot and dry summers brought by climate change resulted in dozens of deadly wildfires and as much as $30 billion in liability that the company says it can’t pay.

So far, PG&E has used bankruptcy to avoid payment to fire victims and to void contracts to buy green energy. There is no precedent for the situation the company faces, and no clear path back to business as usual.

As socialists, we view PG&E’s bankruptcy proceeding as a great opportunity. DSA chapters and organizing committees in Northern California, including Chico, North Bay, East Bay, San Francisco, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, Silicon Valley, and Sierra Foothills have formed a coalition around the following demands:

  • No bailout. In profitable times, investors make billions each year from ratepayers. We reject privatized gain with socialized risk. No public funds should be used to pay PG&E’s debts, and costs should not be passed to ratepayers.
  • Public and worker control. Decisions about our utilities should be made by the 16 million people who use them (and the 20,000 who do the work), not a small group of millionaire executives who serve billionaire investors.
  • Green New Deal. Public ownership of utilities would provide a mechanism for a just transition to clean energy and good-paying union jobs.

East Bay DSA created a working group focused on research and coalition building and created a website, LetsOwnPGE.com, to popularize public ownership with democratic and worker control. And San Francisco DSA and Sacramento DSA have organized disruptive direct actions at CPUC hearings alongside partner groups such as Local Clean Energy Alliance, Diablo Rising Tide, Mask Oakland, Communities for a Better Environment, and East Bay Clean Power Alliance, generating a slew of compelling press coverage and imagery. If you’ve read anything about PG&E in the last three months, you probably saw DSA’s red banners.

Given the power of PG&E’s money in the state capitol, we have no illusions: this will be a long and difficult fight. But we believe dangerous conditions won’t change until we’re rid of the profit-seeking structures that created them. We will look to build support for militant union workers at PG&E and in the energy sector broadly. We will support democratic coalitions that prioritize our climate and our future. We will continue to campaign to popularize our socialist vision, and we believe we will win.