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THE STATE

How Kilowatt Socialism Saved L.A. From the Energy Crisis

April 29, 2001|JEFF STANSBURY | Jeff Stansbury is a PhD candidate in American history at UCLA. His dissertation is on the role of the labor movement in the building of L.A.'s infrastructure

Why is Los Angeles an island of tranquillity in the electric-power crisis that has rocked California and threatens to spread across the nation?

News stories have repeatedly told us that the city's ownership and operation of its own generating stations is the principal reason. By staying clear of the state's 1996 deregulation scheme for private utilities, the Department of Water and Power was able to hold onto its power plants.

So far, so good. But when we ask how Los Angeles came to enjoy public power in the first place, the answer commonly given makes a hash of history.

Most historians and political scientists credit the city's progressive reform movement of 1890-1915 for having wisely settled on a municipal utility. True, some of the entrepreneurs, lawyers and reform-minded professionals who called themselves "the best men" during that era agitated for the city-built Owens Valley aqueduct and its generating stations. But many reformers opposed the city's effort to distribute its own power. Because they had allied themselves with railway magnate Henry Huntington, who owned an electric company, or because they favored regulation over municipal ownership, they wanted L.A.'s three private electric companies to sell and profit from aqueduct power. Meyer Lissner, a reform attorney often portrayed as a champion of public power, opposed the holding of a decisive 1911 citywide straw poll on the subject because he knew most Angelenos would cast their ballots for municipal ownership. That, he said, would be "unfair" to the three utilities.

The most steadfast partisans of public power were not progressive reformers like Lissner but the city's much-maligned labor unions, and for a simple reason. While mistrust of oligopoly ran through nearly all sectors of society, it burned hottest in working-class wards. Without organized labor's dogged campaign for "gas and water socialism," as well as its willingness to hand control of these resources to the anti-union regimes of Mayors George Alexander and Henry Rose, there would be no DWP today.

Organized labor played a key role in the city's original decision to municipalize its water distribution system. On Oct. 24, 1892, 700 union members met to demand that the city build a small neighborhood waterworks as a step toward public control of the entire water supply. From that day on, L.A.'s unions never wavered in their call for a public water supply publicly managed. They mobilized the rank and file for the water-company buyouts of 1901-04, and, in 1906, the Public Ownership Party's citywide campaign primed voters to pour $23 million into construction of the Owens River aqueduct a year later. The aqueduct was the sine qua non of public power. At a time when most progressive reformers were mute on the subject, organized labor insisted that the aqueduct be used to generate electricity for the city's streets, homes and businesses.

A broad consensus backed the city's construction of hydroelectric plants while the aqueduct was being built, but most of the city's politicians and corporate lobbyists were committed to public subsidies, not public ownership, of aqueduct power. The 1911 straw poll, in which city voters declared their support for municipal ownership and distribution of Owens River power, upset their plans.

The most consistent fighters for public power during the decades after the straw poll were the Central Labor Council, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, other unions and city employees who stuffed campaign envelopes, canvassed precincts and got out the vote. Voters who favored municipally owned power and initiatives bolstering the DWP tended to be working class and Democratic; those opposed were mainly middle and upper class and Republican.

In this polarized political climate, Mayor Alexander called for a $6.5-million bond issue to complete the aqueduct-power distribution network; he left open the question of who would sell the power to consumers. Unions and socialists tied their support for the bonds to a city charter reform that would guarantee them a long-sought role in city government through proportional representation. When the reform failed at the polls, they withheld support from the power bonds, and these, too, went down to defeat in 1913. Much of the rancor workers felt was aimed at progressives like Lissner, head of the Good Government Organization, who fought labor's charter plank because it would bring socialists onto the City Council.

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