Chicago Power Play: Energy Company Pits Union Members Against Clean Air

Kari Lydersen

Chicago's two archaic coal plants, including the Fisk plant in the city's Pilsen neighborhood, are blamed for causing premature death and asthma attacks.

CHICAGO — As a Chicago City Council committee last week debated a proposed ordinance that would force the city’s two coal-burning power plants to shut down or convert to cleaner-burning natural gas, the council chambers were packed with about 300 international electrical union (IBEW) members in blue shirts and Save Our Jobs” stickers, some of them also wearing hard hats.

The union members, bused in from around the region, arrived early enough on April 21 to pack the chamber so that only a handful of supporters of the ordinance made it inside. During the seven-hour hearing, the workers cheered loudly at any praise of their employer, Midwest Generation, or testimony questioning the health impacts of pollution from the archaic coal plants.

Midwest Generation officials have frequently referred to the proposal as a shut down” ordinance that would terminate 185 jobs at the two Chicago plants, along with contract building work by union tradesmen. Only about a fifth of the workers at the plants actually live in Chicago, the plant manager acknowledged.

City Alderman Joe Moore, the main sponsor of the ordinance, repeatedly stressed the fact that the proposal mandates retraining and retention policies to protect workers at the coal plants. Calling them brothers and sisters,” he asked the union members to resist being manipulated by the company’s threats to close the plants.

Haven’t we heard this refrain time and time again? Shouldn’t we hear what they (company officials) have to say but not just accept it at face value? Challenge it a little? Get them to prove what they say is true?

He framed the ordinance as an opportunity to create new jobs, either in retrofitting the plants with extensive pollution control equipment or converting it to natural gas. Other proponents of the ordinance also said Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of Edison International, could divert its investments from the coal plants to clean energy production, including the wind farms it already has underway.

Dean Apple, president and business agent of IBEW Local 15, said wind farms create construction jobs, but few permanent positions. Apple said the union has had its disagreements with Midwest Generation, but they are approaching the proposed ordinance with a united front, seeing it as a battle about more than just the two plants.

I would ask you guys to consider taking a long hard look at this, how it’s going to affect labor,” he told city council members. We don’t need more unemployment. This not only affects the 200 people I represent at these two stations … if we do something here it will be a domino effect all over the state.”

He implied advocates attacking the coal-burning power plants might then set their sights on nuclear or wind power.

They’ll say we don’t even know what to do with our radioactive waste — let’s be honest, nationally we don’t know what to do with our spent fuel…And wind has drawbacks … I do live around the windmills … they’re being fought heavily now — they don’t want them anymore, they’re too loud, they have this flickering effect.

A representative of union building trade workers with contracts at the coal plants said 235,000 annual man-hours there would be lost if the plants closed. He said a third of his members are unemployed, and told stories of a woman needing to get divorced to access her benefits and a man moving in with his in-laws in shame — situations that had no direct link to the coal plants.

City Councilman James Balcer, who grew up near one of the plants, expressed concern about its health effects, but also seemed to become overwhelmed by the idea out-of-control environmental regulations could mean mass unemployment. After the city’s environment commissioner said construction equipment, cooking vents from restaurants and trucks are all major sources of air pollution, he said:

If we go through all these things, what will be left? Are we going to close all the restaurants? How will we build buildings? How will we have jobs? We have to look at people who are possibly getting sick and we also have to think about people’s jobs.

Proponents of the ordinance pointed to a study by the Environmental Law and Policy Center linking the coal plants to $127 million in public health costs each year. The Services Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents Chicago healthcare workers, is a strong backer of the ordinance.

Danny Solis, the city councilman who represents the Pilsen neighborhood where one of the plants is located, pledged to support the ordinance under pressure from the SEIU. (The SEIU state council endorsed his opponent in February elections, and then endorsed Solis in an April run-off election after he promised to back the Clean Power Ordinance.)

At the city council hearing last week, the IBEW union members found themselves on the same side as their frequent adversaries with the city and state chambers of commerce, who argue that local regulations create an unstable business climate” and discourage businesses from locating in a city.

While Moore stressed his solidarity with organized labor, he expressed annoyance with business representatives echoing Midwest Generation’s contention that carbon dioxide and other pollutants should only be regulated by the federal government. Since Congress has failed to pass a climate bill, there are currently no federal limits on carbon dioxide.

We can’t do things like this on a federal level because organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce lobby against it,” Moore said. You can’t say these regulations should be done on a federal level and then lobby against them on the federal level. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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