The Electrical Worker online
January 2013

Nebraska Local Helps Defeat
Water Plant Privatization
index.html Home    print Print    email Email

Go to

Never has the role of government been a more scorching topic in the national discourse of the U.S. and Canada. Should some services now provided by local, state, provincial and national government be turned over to private interests? If so, which ones?

That was the question faced by 13 members of Grand Island, Neb., Local 1597 who maintain the city's wastewater treatment plant — treating 8 million gallons of raw sewage each day — after they heard that their mayor and city council had lined up behind a plan to turn management of the facility over to a private company.

An operations agreement with a subsidiary of Veolia Environment, a huge private enterprise with operations in 77 countries and nearly $40 billion of revenues in 2011, looked like a done deal. City leaders saw in selling management rights an easy solution to completing a $50 million upgrade of the aging plant's infrastructure outlined in a 2009 comprehensive plan.

But members of Local 1597 and activists from an international advocacy organization, Food & Water Watch, were not content to be observers. Waging a multi-pronged campaign against privatization in Grand Island, the Great Plains industrial city with the incongruous name, they set a potent example of how to build political consensus at the grassroots and win.

Union and Public Water Advocates Unite

Dave De La Motte is a 14-year maintenance mechanic at the plant and a lifelong resident of Grand Island. Six years ago, he was part of a unanimous vote to bring his bargaining unit of operating, maintenance and support personnel at the treatment plant into Local 1597.

"I believe the councilmen and mayor honestly thought that privatization was good for the city," says De La Motte. "But as servants of the public, we thought it was a bad decision."

Concerned about how privatization could affect their jobs, as residents, union members were also concerned about higher rates and declines in customer service.

A letter sent by the local union to 13,000 households in Grand Island, stated, "Residents of cities with privately operated wastewater treatment plants experience consistently higher rates, declines in customer service and quality, and little-to-no democratic input. Other consequences of privatization regularly include lost jobs due to cutbacks by the private operator, and profits leaving the community, as well as lack of transparency, increased corruption and diminished accountability for the operation of the wastewater treatment plant."

Local 1597 Business Manager Dan Quick says members at the plant approached him in August 2011 for help. Their work force is one of 17 public employee bargaining units, covered by 18 contracts negotiated by the local union.

An Uphill Climb

Quick knew that winning wouldn't be easy. Prior to his election, Grand Island Mayor Jay Vavricek had served as a board member of the Platte Institute, a think tank that promotes privatization. And he had appointed a public works director who championed privatization.

Ken Mass, president of the Nebraska State AFL-CIO, put Quick in touch with Matt Ohloff, an Iowa-based organizer with Food & Water Watch, a 2005 outgrowth of Public Citizen.

Research from Food & Water Watch put the challenge facing Grand Island in the context of a growing trend of privatization of U.S. water resources as municipalities struggle to balance budgets or — as in the case of Grand Island — look to finance upgrades to their water supply and treatment infrastructures.

Putting Mobilization Tools to Work

After sending their letter raising concerns about privatization to Grand Island households, the local mobilized for a turnout at a city council meeting where Veolia was scheduled to make a presentation. The surprise witness at the council meeting was the water treatment plant's superintendent, who refuted Veolia's numbers. The council postponed a vote until his analysis could be verified.

Following the meeting, Quick and Ohloff sponsored a town hall meeting. The next day, The Grand Island Independent carried an article favorable to the anti-privatization campaign.

Other cities and towns supporting privatization see the revenue from selling off public assets or outsourcing management as a solution to their drastically eroding tax bases. Despite the decline of the nation's industrial base, Grand Island's economy is relatively stable, with relatively low unemployment and growing population.

De La Motte was one of four plant workers who addressed a January council meeting opposing Veolia. He says, "It's been a long time since I put myself at the point of a spear, but I was born and raised in Grand Island and I thought it was time to speak up. While we were afraid of repercussions on the job, this was one of those things you do because you believe it's important."

The local placed an ad in The Independent listing telephone numbers of city council members and urging residents to call opposing privatizing management.

Overwhelming Opposition to Privatization

Grand Island Councilman John Gericke, a retired policeman and husband of Local 1597 member Pat Gericke, told The Independent in February he had 110 contacts from constituents. None of them supported the privatization plan.

On Jan. 24, the council met again. Says Quick, "The mayor went on an eight-minute rant about our ad in the newspaper and bashed Local 1597 for interfering." But the next day, The Independent published a letter to the editor from Quick and another story raising questions about privatization.

On Feb 2, an overflow crowd attended the council's vote on privatization. Quick requested the mayor to ask everyone opposed to privatization to stand up. Only the two representatives from Veolia remained seated. The council voted 10-0 against privatization.

"I think the Grand Island fight was significant in that the situation looked bleak at the outset, but we engaged and mobilized the public," says Ohloff. "This shows the power of organizing and education."

Ken Mass, who mobilized other unions to stand by the IBEW, says, "I can't say enough about this effort. If the plant had been privatized, they were going to keep going and put more operations in private hands."

Part of a Growing Movement

De La Motte says the dedicated work of his co-workers will contribute to a successful plant modernization. That will be another step to building a growing, more secure Grand Island.

Inside the plant, workers are beginning to work under a two-year contract that took effect on Oct. 1. The plant's management has undergone changes since the privatization victory. As the plant prepares for modernization, an engineer who was previously employed by one of Veolia's competitors American Water has replaced the superintendent who spoke out against privatization at the city council hearing.

De La Motte says his co-workers are confident that they will constructively deal with these and other changes that come their way as active IBEW members.

After all, being part of the IBEW was critical in stopping privatization, says De La Motte, who served on the local's committee during a prior contract negotiation.

"A small group of dedicated people can do a lot," says De La Motte. But, he adds, "Having the resources to mail fliers to residents and advertise in the newspapers and link up with Food & Water Watch placed enough information in the hands of residents with enough volume to make a difference."



Grand Island Local 1597 Business Manager
Dan Quick


Members of Grand Island, Neb., Local 1597 mobilized their neighbors to convince the city's leaders to oppose privatizing management of its wastewater treatment plant. From left are Donnie Rowley, Leroy Ostermeier, Kent Russell, Dave DeLaMotte, Brad Green, Doug Whitt and Gary Christensen.