Fight the Power Plants

Was electric deregulation cover for union-busting in power plants?

Photo by Keith MayA few weeks ago, hundreds of angry union activists demonstrated outside the AES electrical power plant in Huntington Beach. Chanting slogans and waving banners, they denounced AES, Enron and some private, Texas-based companies, claiming that the much-vaunted 1996 deregulation of the power industry was really a cover for good old-fashioned layoffs and union-bashing. One of those protesters, who said he works inside an Orange County power plant, agreed to share his perspective. Out of fear of retaliation by plant officials, he asked to remain anonymous.

OC Weekly:Everybody hates power companies these days. What's your gripe? Protestor:What nobody realizes about deregulation is that its main purpose was to allow companies like Southern California Edison (SCE) to sell their older plants. SCE, Pacific Gas & Electric, and San Diego Gas & Electric all helped craft this legislation so they could sell their old plants and focus on something much easier: transmitting the electricity and charging the consumer. In the past four years, companies like Enron and AES have come into Southern California and wiped out the labor unions. If you want to work at the AES plant in Huntington Beach, for example, you have to work nonunion. They decertified the union there, and then they started to lay people off. Everyone has been affected, from full-time operators and machinists to part-time scrubbers and maintenance workers. What about plant safety?

These companies are trying to make a profit, so if that means they operate a plant with less people, their attitude is "So what?" Since the power industry was deregulated, we have had to do more work with less people. There are only three operators on a shift where I work, and there used to be five. There are four shifts each day, so you only have 12 guys that actually operate the entire plant. Making electricity is my job and my pre-occupation, so safety always comes first. But that doesn't mean things don't get overlooked.

What do you actually do?

I am a power-plant operator. I operate the plant to make electricity. I turn fresh water into steam. That entails operating acid pumps to keep the feed water's PH level low and mixing chemicals and injecting them into the steam.

Tell me something that only an operator of a power plant would know.

It takes a tremendous amount of water to both make steam and rinse the boilers with cooling water. And there are two different kinds of water we have to use: fresh water to make the steam and salt water to cool the condenser. Is that what you wanted to know?

Is it dangerous?

There is a lot of stuff to watch, and there are not a lot of people doing it, so a lot of things get overlooked. At my plant, you have exactly three guys working together to make it through the day. It can be very dangerous. Fatigued steel and tube leaks are common things; we have tube failures all the time. But until somebody gets hurt or a power plant blows up, nobody will know how dangerous a job like mine truly is. That's the horse I'm riding on, so to speak, or the lion I'm trying to tame.

So what's the most disturbing thing you've seen?

I've seen guys get blown up. I've made three rescues. I have fought fires, and I saw a close friend get burns on 80 percent of his body. I've been on shift when we had a tube leak, which blew the casing out of the side of the boiler. A few years ago, we performed a body recovery in El Segundo. Somebody was diving near the intake pumps, looking for lobsters. He was sucked in through a set of screens. We recovered his body in the forebay. He was some guy who went diving out there to scam some lobsters. You aren't supposed to do that; it's illegal.

Why should anyone care about union-busting and downsizing inside the power plants?

Because it's part of the big picture behind this whole mess. These companies are trying to run the plants as cheaply as they can. But without the right investment—especially in terms of labor—we are going to have a much worse power crisis this summer. I'll bet my own paycheck that there will be a lot of people without power this summer in Orange County. My plant was built in the 1920s. How long do you think it's going to last before it breaks down again and they have to rebuild it? Right now, it's actually shut down for maintenance. They gave us three weeks to make sure everything will work for a whole year. That's not enough time. Something will get overlooked, and then we'll have to shut the plant down again. That means no power, folks.

If you could tell the "folks" one thing, what would it be?

Everybody knows that power plants pollute, but people don't realize that every plant gets a certain number of nitrous oxide "credits." These credits are like any other commodity—you can buy and sell them—but every station is allocated only a certain number. When you run out of credits, you have to shut the plant down. Unless California changes this law, we are going to have another power crisis this summer. We're all equally to blame because we vote for this stuff, but the Air Quality Management District is out of freaking control.

And?

Conserve electricity, man. If you don't need a light on, turn it off. If you can be comfortable without your air conditioning blasting in your face, turn it off. Conserve, conserve, conserve; that's all I can say. And when some piece of legislation comes along that will allow California to build new power plants, vote for it.

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