California blackout, fire show need for workers control of power companies

By Jeff Powers
November 18, 2019

GEYSERVILLE, Calif. — In late October hundreds of thousands of California residents had their electric power shut off by Pacific, Gas and Electric, and Southern California Edison — the state’s two largest utility monopolies. Both companies initially claimed the shutdowns were necessary to prevent possible forest fires as high winds approaching 80 mph were predicted, along with low humidity in areas where their power lines run through extremely dry vegetation.

But even with the shutdowns, two big fires broke out. The Kincade Fire in Northern California that has burned over 77,000 acres, while the Tick Fire around Los Angeles has burned close to 5,000 acres. PG&E equipment appears to have caused the Kincade Fire. The company admits a broken jumper cable was reported at one of their towers where the blaze began.

The Kincade Fire caused government authorities to order 180,000 people to evacuate from this city, Healdsburg, Windsor and the surrounding area. Everyone there was left to get out on his or her own. No public transportation was provided and the temporary shelters the state set up were quickly overrun.

“We have been in our house nine years. Most of the people like my father who work for the wineries live and work here year round,” Fatima Rodriguez, a high school freshman here, told this Militant  worker-correspondent. “We went to Healdsburg where we stayed with family members. Then we were evacuated from there a few days later and went to Cloverdale where other family members took us in.”

“I just got my gas turned back on yesterday,” Nancy Walker told us. “Geyserville was evacuated from Wednesday, October 23 to Thursday, October 31. Thousands of people were on the road. There weren’t enough motel rooms. I slept in my van outside the shelter in Healdsburg.”

Workers and grocery and restaurant owners had little option but to watch food go bad, hoping the fire wouldn’t destroy their homes and businesses. If you were sick at home on life support or other electricity-run health equipment, you had to hope you could make it to an emergency facility with a generator in time to survive.

PG&E bosses started these “preventative” mass evacuations after they were responsible for starting the Camp Fire — the deadliest forest fire in California’s history — that destroyed the town of Paradise in November 2018. The fire and social catastrophe it produced led to the death of at least 80 people, burning over 150,000 acres and destroying 14,000 residences. A nearly 100-year-old faulty PG&E power line was found to be the cause of the blaze. Faced with some $30 billion in wildfire liabilities, company bosses filed for bankruptcy in January.

Since then PG&E management has done little to fix their aging infrastructure and clean out brush and other debris that can serve as tinder under their power lines.

Joel Britton, Socialist Workers Party candidate for San Francisco mayor, said what we are seeing is the way the capitalist system and politics work. Workers need their own party — a labor party — to fight against the attacks by the bosses and their government backers to defend our interests, and to chart an independent working-class road forward.

In a statement Britton has been campaigning with, he says, “Putting electrical wires underground has been rejected as too expensive as untold millions have been spent on executive salaries and bonuses and billions of dollars are paid to settle lawsuits.

“PG&E workers, most of whom are members of the IBEW union, need to be in control of operations of this utility. They know from their experiences what is safe and what is dangerously unsafe and must have the authority to organize PG&E’s workload.

“The fight for nationalization of PG&E under workers control will require organizing independently of the capitalist parties — the Democrats and Republicans. This fight can be part of a movement of millions of working people that we need to build and chart a course out of the capitalist economic, social and moral crisis to replace capitalist rule with a workers and farmers government.”

Capitalist vultures seek to profit

Seeking to avoid being caught up in the blame for the fires, blackouts and social catastrophe PG&E greed has produced, area politicians who have taken big contributions from the company in the past have tried to take their distance. California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the state may have to take over the company, saying PG&E has shown “years and years of greed and years and years of mismanagement.” Newsom had earlier introduced legislation in the California State Assembly extending a surcharge paid by customers until 2035. During Newsom’s election campaign, PG&E donated $208,000 for his help.

When PG&E found itself facing bankruptcy, a group of hedge funds — including Abrams Capital, Baupost Group and Knighthead Capital — sensed a potential gold mine and invested in it, joining some existing shareholders to name a new board and draft a plan to get out of bankruptcy with profits assured by screwing bondholders and fire victims.

Now they’re being challenged by the bondholders — led by hedge fund Elliott Management — hoping to profit by taking the utility over and shafting the stockholder bloc.

Seeking leverage in the bankruptcy court battle, Elliott has offered fire victims higher compensation and told International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245 officials, who represent many PG&E workers, they’ll protect their pension funds. The Elliott-led group is asking for an additional $672 million in fees to reorganize the utility.