He might have made it to the top this year, but Edison won't be sending linemen to Kansas City in September. The rodeo team is one more casualty of the California crisis.
Seven months after his big win, Baker watches as pieces of Barstow go dark. Planned blackouts sweep across the southern part of the state for the first time since World War II. Traffic lights blink off; drivers skid into intersections. Manufacturing lines stop cold. Root canals go unfinished. Customers call, confused and angry. They see the men in the white trucks and wonder, are they pulling the switch?
"Today I went into a grocery store. I had on an Edison hat," Baker said in early April. "The store manager, who's a friend of mine, says, 'Is it safe to wear that around here?' He wasn't joking. These days, people look at you funny, like it's all your fault."
Union Opposed Deregulation Plan
For decades, Edison's linemen enjoyed a strong safety record, top-of-the-line equipment and lifetime job security. Then came deregulation--a concept that the linemen's union opposed long before the 1996 state law was adopted, convinced it would destabilize their lives.
They were downsized. Their jobs were contracted out or given to temporary workers. They felt exposed and vulnerable. As early as 1998, an Edison veteran warned on a linemen's Web site: "All you guys, look out when deregulation comes your way. . . . SCE is still good, but not like the old days."
Among the 2,000 jobs Edison cut in January were hundreds of contracted linemen working on large construction projects. Veteran linemen absorbed huge losses in their half-million-dollar retirement accounts based on Edison stock.
The utility was on the TV news every night. Linemen began spending more time with customers, explaining, defending. They blamed the state regulators who set up the dysfunctional market and the energy suppliers who took advantage and reaped huge profits, but they also wondered: Why isn't the company doing more to get the facts out? Why isn't it being more aggressive?
In February, the union launched its own campaign, organizing a protest march at a Huntington Beach generating plant owned by AES, a giant Texas-based energy wholesaler. The message was that Edison was the victim of gouging by the generators. But what motorists saw as they drove by were angry picketers at a power plant, wearing Edison hats and jackets. Victim and villain were confused. The problem was too complex to fit on a placard. No more protests are planned.
Soon after Edison's belt-tightening, the electrical workers union filed objections with the state Public Utilities Commission, arguing that the layoffs and overtime restrictions would seriously reduce the level of service in Edison territory--a violation of PUC rules.
Two months later, the PUC agreed and ordered Edison to restore jobs and hours that could affect service. By then, some linemen argued, it was too late. "The customers will remember we weren't there for them," says Lopez, a longtime union activist and an officer of Local 47.
Even after the PUC ruling, overtime restrictions for routine work continue to cut linemen's pay by at least 20%, far more in some cases. It's a traumatic loss for those who have grown accustomed to fat checks, and to nearly doubling their base pay of about $65,000.
"For someone with no college degree, earning six figures is not bad," says Russ Neal, a supervisor in the Santa Ana distribution center. "But keep in mind, this job is hard on personal lives. A lot of these guys are paying ex-wives, child support. They're not all choosing between a boat and a camper."
For some, the change has been a partial blessing. Elite "troublemen" like Lopez, who are the first on the scene of an outage, get to sleep through the night, spend more time with their children and read them bedtime stories.
"Having Dad home has been wonderful," says Peggy Lopez, Ernie's wife of 20 years. "We have a son, and there's been a lot of bonding lately."
But they all miss what the linemen call blood money. The Lopez family is scaling back on weekend trips and dinners out. Peggy wonders whether she'll need to go back to work after staying home for 11 years with her two children. Nine-year-old Albert is in tears after a day of teasing at school: Your dad's going to lose his job, the kids taunt.
"We hadn't shared with the children how serious it was," says Peggy. "Afterward, he and Ernie had that talk. Now we just pray that things get worked out."