Utility Rate Increase Fights Are Back!

concept of expensive energy billNew Orleans    Once upon a time back in the last century, just as there are now campaigns for things like living wages and ending predatory lending, there were fights to hold giant utility companies accountable all over the country more than forty years ago. Then there was something called inflation, which young people in the 21st century may have forgotten, though thanks to the Federal Reserve’s coming decision on interest rates, we are about to learn anew, where prices and costs rise everywhere, not just on drugs, housing, and higher education. During those times, investor owned utilities (yes, IOU’s) were also known as public utilities because they were allowed monopolies and were therefore regulated by public service or public utility companies from state to state.

Utilities, in even older days, were about as unpopular as, well, banks, and whole political careers were made fighting against their rate and construction plans in favor of the little folks who were sometime called consumers. Many of these commissioners were elected in the western and southern United States and whole careers were made of fighting against utilities and the like. Huey Long, the Louisiana populist was a good example of this breed.

In the early 1970’s, utility rate increase fights were being waged all over the country and not just in places like California and Seattle. ACORN was in the thick of the battles in Arkansas, South Dakota and many other states. The principal objective was winning something we – and others – called “lifeline” rates. Lifeline rates would freeze the price for lower income and elderly users at an affordable level for the first 400 kilowatt hours of usage thereby protecting them against outrageous rate increases. We tried to win at the PSC in Arkansas and would manage to decrease the outrageous requests of what was then called Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L), one of the units of Middle South Utilities, now all known as Entergy. We even decisively won an election in Little Rock establishing lifeline rates only to have the victory overturned in court with Web Hubbell and Hillary Clinton sitting at the utility’s table, but that’s both another story and at the heart of this story, because it has to do with the financing.

To pay for lifeline rates at the bottom for the small users, it was necessary to modify the huge giveaways to the big users receiving bulk discounts for heavy usage. Alcoa and Reynolds Aluminum, huge operations at the time in Arkansas, used 10% of all of the electricity produced by AP&L to run their operations. Making the larger users pay a fairer share protected the smaller users who were essentially subsidizing the big guys. This whole inequity thing we’re fighting now, is not exactly brand spanking news.

Fast forward and there is Ernie Dumas who was on the editorial board of the Arkansas Gazette back then writing a column now in the Arkansas Times that was essentially déjà vu all over again. Entergy, taking advantage of the Republican majority in both houses of the legislature, managed to pass something that overturned the way utilities are regulated in the state and now are whining that they want the PSC to hand over more than a 10% increase. Defying all logic – and history – they are also arguing that allowing them to give even bigger discounts to electricity guzzling industries will bring in jobs. The argument rests on hopes that permanent amnesia has set in and no one will realize that this is their same strategy dressed in a new, more expensive coat, and it has never created jobs but always strapped consumers with high bills. He wonders if “the ratepayers’ voice will be there,” and that’s a call that must be answered. Yet again, and again, and again.

This is the proverbial canary in the mine-shaft. Utility companies are shrewd and they live like vultures in the hallways of state legislatures. Arkansas won’t be the only state where they have seduced them silently to prey on consumers. Let’s hope the battle cry can be heard and answered everywhere once again.

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John Beam, Veteran of ACORN’s Heroic Era

entergys-white-bluff-coal-plant-in-redfield

Entergy White Bluff Plant

New Orleans     More than 15 years ago during the HOTROC organizing campaign for hotel workers in New Orleans, I worked with an organizer named David Keiffer. Dave had been around a number of organizations before partnering with me and flying an AFL-CIO banner at the time with stints going back to the AM/FM canvass program in Tampa when we built the WMNF radio station there, then years with ACTWU organizing textile workers in the South, and a breakthrough campaign organizing asbestos workers with the Laborers in New York City. Dave had a mythical turn of phrase that cushioned his constant tinkering with his spreadsheets, and would refer to organizers and organizing drives as belonging to the historic, heroic era of this or that.

The phrase comes to mind as I think about the passing of John Beam, another veteran of ACORN’s first dozen years of organizing in Arkansas and beyond, clearly in Dave’s sense and every sense I can image, a key organizer in the heroic, founding days of the organization in the United States. John’s passing follows other veterans of that era now in recent years including Dewey Armstrong earlier in this year and Jon Kest almost two years ago now. These were great organizers in their day and we won’t see their like again or benefit from the kinds of contributions they made very soon in the future.

For many years John and I would joke about the coincidence that we had a multi-year streak of always sharing my birthday in August together. He was from Dallas and had driven up to be interviewed on a Saturday in the early 1970’s on my birthday. He hadn’t been long out of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois outside of Chicago. Later he’d actually took that trip we children of the West always talk about and in fact traveled one way and another deep into Latin America. He was always ready to go. Another one of my birthdays in 1974, we spent driving to the Missouri Bootheel, that small piece of delta land that juts along the Mississippi River into Arkansas and is more south than anything else. We had tried our first baby steps at expanding ACORN by answering the call from a group there called MDEM, the Missouri Delta Ecumenical Ministry and recruited an organizer from Chicago who John trained on a quick drive in Mabelvale in Pulaski County outside of Little Rock. He had done all right, but clearly it wasn’t working out in the Bootheel for any of us, so we had drawn the short straw of going up, closing down this brief trail balloon called the American Community Organizations for Reform Now, and sending him on his way as well. That was just the way John and I celebrated the passing of another year!

John spent years working for ACORN. He opened up one of our earliest expansion offices in the 20/80 push in Memphis, Tennessee. Heck, maybe that was on my birthday, too, but I may be making that up! He worked later as one of the early ACORN Regional Directors, based in New Orleans after 1978. He was part of the mix and mayhem of the New Orleans jobs action that led to arrests and mess as we pushed Mayor Dutch Morial for summer job for youth.

But, if I tried to remember perhaps John’s most epic piece of organizing for ACORN during those heroic days, it was in the delta of the Arkansas River organizing the Protect Our Land Association (POLA) and SHAP, ACORN, standing for Save Health and Property. Arkansas Power & Light, then part of Mid-South Utilities, and now Entergy, submitted a proposal to the Public Service Commission to build what they called “the world’s largest coal-fired power plant” at White Bluff on west side of the Arkansas River midway between Pine Bluff and Little Rock. We were already fighting AP&L and other utilities on inflation-driven rate hikes for our members, right and left, and initially jumped into this fight because we were convinced that it would raise our members’ electric rates yet again. We operated the campaign on every level, researching the stock ownership and opening a front of the campaign at Harvard and with other Ivies that were big holders. Steve Kest, our research director, was reading reports of damage to cows under the lines in Europe and studies about sulfur emission damage to crops in Sweden. We were outsmarting and out hustling the company at every turn. The company for its part was intent on constructing a “slurry” line eventually and until then running 100-car trains that would move coal from the Powder River basin and the giant Fort Union coal deposit in eastern Wyoming. North Dakota, and Montana, where we also engaged allied groups of farmers and ranchers in the fight.

ACORN was never an advocacy group though, it was always a membership-based, membership-driven organization, so no matter how many bells and whistles we might develop for the campaign, the organizing would rise or fall on whether or not we could get farmers and rural residents downwind of the proposed White Bluff plant to organize with ACORN and lead the fight. That was just the kind of job and challenge for John Beam, and he delivered big time, driving miles and walking the long distances up country roads to farmhouse doors and talking to families about what White Bluff would bring down on them, how it would affect their crops, and the impact on the health of their livestock and families. I will never forget the shock on the face of the local AP&L office director in their small office in Stuttgart in the middle of the eastern Arkansas rice growing region when John and I along with others followed about 25 farmers into his office demanding more information on the plans and no movement until we were satisfied.

They wanted to fly some of the farmers to see the Paradise plant in Kentucky, and not only did we blast them on the plant’s environmental record, but packed the small planes with our farmers and just tore them up. The campaign brought us our first front-page story in the Arkansas Gazette. We won huge reductions in size and increased protections from the plant, and were able to counter AP&L at every turn.

John left ACORN in 1982 some years later. He married Polly Chase, another former organizer, and later a nurse, who was from Rhode Island. They ended up in New York City. Our paths didn’t cross as much over the last few decades. I ran into him a couple of times in ACORN’s Brooklyn office. He wrote some proposals for New York ACORN. He even ended up directing a joint project based at Fordham University on education for some years with us.

Nonetheless in my mind, jumping out of our old cars onto the shoulder of eastern Arkansas highways to talk to a couple of more farmers or walking into the cafes where they were having coffee early in the morning and talking about White Bluff and finally beating that company like a drum thanks to John’s great work in the fields and farmhouses, will always feel like his finest hour with ACORN.

And, he will be missed.

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