AFSCME Members Fight Back Against Privatization Push at JEA

Since the 1880s, dedicated municipal employees had operated Jacksonville’s water and sewer systems. Expanded to include an electric system in 1895, the arrangement is even part of the city’s charter. In 1968, Jacksonville Electric Authority became JEA as it grew into an independent, but publicly run, authority as it included customers in surrounding counties.

Today, the eighth largest community-owned electric utility company in the United States and largest in Florida is a source of pride to many in the area, especially the 190 men and women represented by AFSCME Local 429. But it is also seen as a juicy target to the forces of privatization that see JEA as a prime opportunity to line their pockets with taxpayer’s money.

“It sounds great that you are going to get all this cash for something you already have, supposedly helping the city fix problems it is facing but privatization can actually increase costs after just a few years, it eliminates accountability to the public and without a doubt it would compromise the quality of critical services that residents regularly rely on,” said AFSCME Local 429 President Kathleen Crowe, a Laboratory Analyst who helps ensure water quality by testing for chemicals such as mercury.

So, when Crowe and her coworkers, represented by AFSCME, IBEW, the Jacksonville Supervisor Association, Laborers and the Professional Employees Association, heard of the privatization plan presented by JEA CEO Paul McElroy they united their voices and started to push back.

Championed by Mayor Lenny Curry and his political operation, it seemed at first that they were fighting a lost cause. But Crowe and her team found that many members of the JEA board of governors, along with key members of the city commission and even influential community figures opposed the idea.

“When you get the owner of the local NFL team saying this doesn’t make sense, when you have JEA board members and business leaders saying this doesn’t make sense, when you have city commissioners asking basic questions that can’t be answered it became clear we had a real chance to win,” said Crowe.  

They showed up at every public hearing and meeting they could wearing red “JEA is Ours” shirts, they wrote letters to the editor and op-eds, they organized community groups by explaining what was at stake and, most importantly, they made clear that as long as this issue was around they would be making their voices heard.

“This is not like selling your house for a premium and walking away with no further commitment to that house,” said Crowe in an op-ed written with the other labor union presidents. “The customers of JEA will still be on the hook for the premium paid in the initial purchase price, as well as the interest or earnings above and beyond that premium paid to the city. The premium payment will either come in increased rates down the road, or by higher property taxes, or fewer services offered by the city. There is one thing we can be sure of: all these costs will be paid in full by JEA customers one way or another!”

When Mayor Curry announced last week that that he will not submit any JEA privatization plan to the City Council he said it was because the debate over the issue had been captured by special interests such as JEA workers themselves.

“We won this round but we are not closing up this campaign,” said Crowe. “We don’t believe for one minute they are still trying to line up the votes or see if they can bring it up in some unique way to get it done. So, we are going to keep fighting, keep pushing our allies to stay vigilant and keep telling our coworkers that the stronger our AFSCME voice the better our chances of winning will be.”