Community Goodwill Wins Projects in Calif.
June 16, 2014
Located in the San Joaquin Valley only 90 miles southeast of San Francisco, Modesto might as well be 1,000 miles away. If politicians under the Golden Gate Bridge brag about their close ties with organized labor, in Modesto and surrounding towns, home to almond, grape, dairy and poultry farms, unions are sparser and politics are less hospitable.
“It’s not always a walk in the park,” getting electrical construction projects approved, says Billy Powell, business manager of Modesto Local 684. But through helping residents in trouble, building a reputation as a good neighbor and working in coalition with other community and labor organizations, Local 684 is winning new work, including two solar farms soon to be under construction.
Local 684’s good neighbor image was front-page news last August after a fire in a mobile home park in nearby Santa Nella cut electrical power to 32 neighboring homes. Merced County leaders called the area’s representative in the state, Adam Gray, for help restoring power to residents who were without air conditioning and refrigeration in triple-digit heat, with thieves taking advantage of the community’s darkness.
Five electrical panels needed to be replaced in the shared unit at a cost of $5,000 each before Pacific Gas and Electric Co. could come in to restore power. But the costs had to be borne by individual lot owners, many of whom live on limited incomes.
“Our difficulty was trying to coordinate how to get the panels fixed. No one party had the money to pay for the work,” says Gray. “So I picked up the phone and called Billy Powell and said, ‘Let’s figure out how to do this outside of government.’” Powell contacted the local’s signatory contractors.
Several union shops immediately installed temporary generators. Then they rebuilt the panels with circuit breakers donated by Square D, an IBEW-organized shop, all at no cost to the residents.
“The county helped with permitting and process issues,” says Gray. “But at the end of the day Local 684 and its business partners did it themselves, without government, a great effort.”
Local TV stations and newspapers, the Merced County Board of Supervisors and individual residents praised Local 684 and the contractors for saving residents from a more prolonged outage
“I thank the IBEW from the bottom of my heart for pulling us out of the fire,” says Joseph Corralejo, a Santa Nella resident who works 80 miles away in Santa Cruz as a drug and alcohol counselor. Corralejo normally stays in Santa Cruz four days a week, working 10-hour night shifts. But he was forced to travel back and forth during the outage to make sure the generator he bought after the outage had sufficient gasoline. “I don’t know what we would have done without IBEW’s help,” he says. “I’m a strong believer in unions,” he says. “They benefit everyone in the community.”
“We got positive recognition flat in the center of California,” says Mark Kindelberger, energy solutions specialist for Schneider Electric who contacted his company’s home office for help after a request from Powell and secured donations of equipment for the Santa Nella park.
“We have a really good working relationship with Local 684, says Kindelberger. Schneider’s western regional manager, he says, has complimented Local 684 and IBEW’s efforts in helping pass Proposition 39, the California Clean Energy Jobs Act, a measure that provides state funding for counties and boards of education to upgrade electrical infrastructure in schools.
“I have addressed the boards of supervisors in both Merced and [Modesto’s] Stanislaus counties several times about publicly-funded projects and try to meet with them privately on a regular basis,” says Powell, who was encouraged by his predecessor to start a political action account after Powell assumed the business manager’s job in 2007. Powell’s lobbying efforts are bipartisan.
Two solar projects have been permitted and approved in Merced County. SunPower Quinto is a 110-megawatt project being built near Santa Nella. A substation is under construction and panels are expected to be installed in September. A smaller 20-megawatt solar job is waiting on its award to a contractor.
Powell spreads around the credit for his local’s growing influence. He says California Unions for Reliable Energy, a coalition initiated by IBEW locals, has been instrumental in helping win renewable energy projects.
Further adding to organized labor’s political juice was the recent merger of three neighboring central labor councils into the North Valley Labor Federation.
On April Fool’s Day, federation members rallied at the office of U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham to oppose his “foolish” opposition to funding a high-speed rail project that would enhance economic development in the San Joaquin Valley by opening up commuter service to San Francisco and other cities.
Powell, who was present at the rally said, “We came out to tell Jeff Denham that the valley needs good jobs not political grandstanding. It’s high time that politicians like Denham start listening to working people instead of high-paid DC lobbyists.” Assemblyman Gray agrees the focus on improving infrastructure is overdue.
“We live in an area that was at the epicenter of the housing bubble,” says Gray, a member of the powerful Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife. Compounding one of the highest mortgage foreclosure rates in the nation, a severe drought threatened farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Unemployment ran as high as 30 to 40 percent.
Advocating on behalf of members is why unions exist. But Local 684’s reputation is growing, says Gray, because it is “extending its advocacy to the community, benefitting everyone.”