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Workers demand labor protections at Austin Energy base rate rally

Tuesday, September 27, 2022 by Kali Bramble

It was an unusually lively morning outside Austin Energy Headquarters last Saturday, as a coalition of workers, environmentalists and community leaders gathered to air their grievances with the publicly owned utility.

With a potential increase to residential rates on the horizon, the Texas Climate Jobs Action Fund led the diverse group of unions and civic organizations in a demand to prioritize affordability, safe working conditions and clean energy practices. Speakers from Electrical Workers Local 520, Texas AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, PODER and the Sunrise Movement all shared the podium, with Council members Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo also making appearances.

“’A better future isn’t possible for working people, it’ll cut into our profits …. We can’t build a greener, more sustainable future with workers that are well compensated, well trained, have health care, who are treated with respect and can return home safely to a thriving family.’ That’s what they’re saying at Austin Energy,” Local 520 member Ryan Pollock said, to a chorus of jeers. “We’re all here today because we know that a better future is possible, that we deserve that better future, and that we’re here to fight for it.”

With plans to update its base rates for 2023, Austin Energy has come under fire for a rate proposal critics say would unfairly impact low-income consumers and run counterproductive to the city’s environmental goals. Chief concerns include a 150 percent increase to the fixed residential service fee from $10 to $25 per month, as well as a restructuring of pricing tiers that would move away from charging steeper premiums for the highest-percentile energy users.

Compounding frustrations is Austin Energy’s recent announcement of a $20 increase in pass-through rates to take effect in November.

With Austin’s affordability crisis at the boiling point, the rate case has invigorated mobilization efforts at the Texas Climate Jobs Project, which formed last July to advocate on behalf of workers in the state’s massive energy industry and advance the shift toward sustainable alternatives like wind and solar. In addition to inequitable rate design, TCJP says Austin Energy must be held accountable for labor practices in its power purchase agreements, which are currently not uniformly subject to the safety and equity standards championed by the city.

“All workers deserve to have a living wage and safe working conditions, and that means workers in all parts of Texas where our utility is doing business,” Texas AFL-CIO organizer Ana Gonzalez said. “Many developments in the city of Austin have labor protections in place. Austin Energy projects should not be an exception.”

Speakers noted that the residential rate hikes reflect a legacy of failed promises to follow city environmental policy, highlighting Austin Energy’s now defunct pledge to close the Fayette coal power plant by 2022.

“We have to build a community for this fight, because institutions like Data Foundry, Freescale Semiconductors, all of these major users of not just electricity but of water, which we are in dire struggle for in this continent, they are on the other side of these rate cases,” Sierra Club leader Dave Cortez said. “These are companies that are making billions of dollars and they are negotiating with City Council, Austin Energy to keep their rates low and their profits maximized.”

Council members will take up the base rate review case in November, when they will be asked to make the final call on Austin Energy’s proposal. Until then, TCJP hopes that the momentum of recent labor successes like the unionization of nurses at Ascension Seton will help them mobilize against the mounting increase.

“We need rates that are fair for our ratepayers; we cannot afford to bump them up so high that people have trouble paying their electric bills,” Council Member Tovo said. “We know families in this community are struggling … so you can expect that I will be with you pushing back on those rates.”

Photo by Angelo DeSantis, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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