CONFESSIONS OF AN UNREPENTANT MAOIST: Municipalization of the electric company

BY ED FELIEN

One of my more ambitious projects was to try to take over the electric company. It had all the romantic allure of Castro and Che sweeping down from the hills to take over a radio station and declare the Revolution.

In Minnesota more than 146 municipalities owned their own electric company. It was really not a wild concept. Minnesota law said a municipality could purchase their electric company for original cost minus depreciation. That was a huge bargain. “Original cost” was a great feature. Imagine buying a 40-year-old car that was running perfectly at 40-year-old prices.

It would be much cheaper for Minneapolis residents. One-third of the electric bill was state and federal taxes. Municipalization would reduce everyone’s bill by one-third—after paying off the cost of the purchase.

I was optimistic and fully charged.

The AFL-CIO Minneapolis Central Committee wanted me to come over and talk to them about the idea. They were seated at a long table, about 20 of them, representing most of the trades and locals in the city. I told them, “There’s three reasons we should support municipalization: It would be cheaper; it would give us some control over how electricity would be produced and we could get away from fossil fuels; and right now only a small fraction of the workers at the electric company were organized, and if the city took them over, the clerical and billing staff would immediately become members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).” The union rep sitting next to the chair said, “If they ain’t organized, piss on ‘em.”

I was shocked. I said, “Do the rest of you believe that?” I asked the local head of the teacher’s union, “Do you believe that?”

I was met with silence.

I learned that trade union politics had more to do with narrow self-interest than with working class solidarity.

It was disillusioning.

The head of the union then sent a memo to everyone on the City Council telling them they opposed municipalization.

I ended up asking the City Council to spend $25,000 on a feasibility study to see if it would be practical for the city to purchase the electric company.

I got 3 or 4 votes out of 13.

A short time after I left the council, the electric company went to the State Legislature and had the law changed so a municipality couldn’t purchase an electric company for original cost minus depreciation. They would have to pay replacement value, which put the cost out of the range of possibilities for most cities in Minnesota.

I knew that generating plants lost a lot of electrical power in transmission. The shorter the distance to transmit the electricity, the less electricity was lost. I had visions of small generating plants throughout the city. But I never thought it possible for every house to have its own electrical generating plant, but that’s what’s happening now with solar panels producing enough electricity to power a house.

That’s an improvement over municipalization.

Individual ownership of an electrical generating plant is even more democratic and more decentralized than municipal ownership.

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