Fighting for Public Utilities Across California
In November 2018, San Francisco was orange. Frantic DSA San Fransisco members drove out to the suburbs, scouting warehouses. The only goal: find anywhere, at all, selling N95 masks. As with everything that follows — we couldn’t do it alone.
The Camp Fire that destroyed Paradise was only growing. Most of Northern California was covered in smoke: for nearly a week, we had the worst air quality in the world. The rich fled San Francisco and the middle class huddled next to $300 HEPA filters. The homeless could do neither. Despite prior fires, San Fransisco city government was caught unprepared.
We couldn’t get supplies by ourselves. Local hardware stores had run out, and nothing could be bought. Instead, we worked with another grassroots initiative: Mask Oakland. They had figured out both the supply chain and distribution to interested groups. Ultimately, they would provide over 85,000 masks in San Francisco, the Bay Area, Chico and Sacramento.
For the next few days, DSA San Francisco tried to take care of a city in crisis.
Masks were dropped off at homeless navigation centers, SROs and encampments. Comrades delivered masks to the striking Marriott workers. The table in front of City Hall went through 200 masks in an hour, including children’s sizes. DSA San Fransisco circulated a zine with instructions on how to make an air filter using $10 worth of supplies — and how to put the N95 mask on correctly. In our office, members kept office hours and handed free masks out to the general public.
DSA San Fransisco had distributed over 6,500 N95 masks. The city government of San Francisco handed out only 1,600. It was the eve of Thanksgiving. The fight had just started.
On November 25th, 2018, the Camp Fire was finally out. It had burnt 240 square miles; displaced over 50,000 people and killed 85. It was the deadliest wildfire in California’s history.
The culprit: Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), headquartered in San Francisco, and traded on the NY Stock Exchange. The courts had also ruled the utility responsible for deadly fires in 2017, which left 47 people dead. In the CA legislature, bill “SB901” allowed PG&E to avoid responsibility by forcing rate payers to absorb the cost. PG&E was destroying our state, and forcing us to pay extra for the damage. Meanwhile, the executives collected millions of dollars in bonuses.
Now, PG&E was trying to get off the hook — again.
On November 29th, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) anticipated a calm hearing. Ignorable statements from the public followed by a classic extension of SB901, another public bailout and a return to normal. But at the end of the comment session, the audience didn’t back down.
Protestors unfurled large red banners. Comrades wore N95 masks, an iconic symbol of the smoke apocalypse. DSA San Fransisco was joined in the action by Mask Oakland, Local Clean Energy Alliance, East Bay Clean Power Alliance, Communities for a Better Environment and Diablo Rising Tide.
This was a primal outcry of disgust and anger, but initial chants were slow to take off. Many people did not have experience with direct action. Finally, an experienced organizer remembered an old classic — “Shut It Down!” The meeting ground to a halt. Eventually, the cops went in, and dragged Craig, one of DSA San Fransisco’s comrades, out of the meeting.
“The fastest way to learn is by doing,” Craig says about the experience.
So, comrades learned about direct action — quickly. Scenarios were played out, tactics and allies discussed in detail. Chants were eventually refined into “PG&E, no more greed, we should own our energy” and “Shame!”. At every CPUC meeting, activists read the names of the dead.
Three CPUC meetings were disrupted in San Francisco. Activists blocked the entrance to PG&E headquarters. Through this, DSA San Fransisco began to form relationships with more organizations, including Food & Water Watch, and the Sunrise movement. To tackle this regional issue, San Fransisco joined forces with other DSA chapters. When CPUC met in Sacramento, they were greeted by a group including comrades from YDSA UC Davis, and DSA chapters from Sacramento, Chico, East Bay, Fresno, and Silicon Valley.
Together, we formed the No PG&E Bailout Coalition and started a movement.
By mid-January, it became clear to the CPUC that a public bailout was no longer feasible. California residents were not going to pay the bill for PG&E’s negligence, unwilling to fund the fires that burned down their own homes. Commissioners began circulating memos about public control of PG&E. National mainstream newspapers wrote about it. DSA LA got the Coalition in touch with Democracy Collaborative, a research institute advocating for a public takeover of PG&E. State legislators met with the Coalition’s representatives to discuss options.
On January 21st, the CPUC called for an “emergency meeting” to let PG&E declare bankruptcy, and get a bailout from banks. On less than 24 hours notice, the Commission didn’t expect resistance — but activists drove record turnout. Chants of “Wall Street Bailout? We say NO!” and “Shame!” echoed through the building. Unfortunately, that bailout passed.
We lost the fight, but not the war. What’s next?
On April 2nd, a federal judge prohibited PG&E from issuing dividends until anti-wildfire safety measures are implemented. The CEO of PG&E left the company (albeit with an extra $2.5 million). It seems unlikely, however, that new, profit-motivated investors will take care of the victims, or encourage long term precautions.
On May 15th, state investigators officially found the fault of the Camp Fire with PG&E electrical transmission lines. This was not unexpected, but it opens PG&E up to more legal actions for their negligence.
No PG&E Bailout Coalition continues to fight. The April 19th rally in demand of a “California Green New Deal” was well attended, and more events are in the works. Capitalism might not prevent forest fires, but we can work together to defeat it.
To learn more about San Francisco DSA’s work, please visit their website at dsasf.org. To learn more about the No PG&E Bailout Coalition, visit their website at actionnetwork.org/ petitions/no-pge-bailout.