Union targets IPL over efficiency, customer programs: Is workers’ group taking on utility advocacy role?

Keywords Health Care / Utilities

A union that’s aggressively sought to organize the city’s janitors unsuccessfully tried to intervene in an Indianapolis Power & Light case before state utility regulators.

IPL’s lawyers mopped the floor with the tenacious union-this time, anyway.

The Service Employees International Union Local 3 wants IPL to expand its energy-efficiency and low-income customer assistance program, arguing that IPL and other utilities need to do more to help lower-income workers afford service.

Attorneys who argue before the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission said it’s the first time they could recall the union’s seeking to intervene in a state utility case. It may signal a new advocacy role for the union in the utility realm.

Usually, battles among utilities and their customer groups and regulators are fought proxy-style, by high-priced attorneys-not by T-shirt-clad janitors with bullhorns.

About a dozen union members and supporters showed up at an IURC hearing last month as commissioners were about to hear IPL’s request to extend, but not expand, the program.

“The IURC and IPL expected it to be a five-minute hearing. It was two hours,” said Gerald Polk, a veteran utility lawyer representing Citizens Action Coalition.

According to one attorney, nobody dared kick the union folks out of a public meeting, no matter their grass-roots approach.

“I think we could have legitimately intervened in this case,” said Rebecca Maran, an officer of SEIU Local 3. “We didn’t know about the little loopholes.”

IPL’s legal team from Barnes & Thornburg did. They noted that the state requires representation by a lawyer admitted to practice law in Indiana.

The union had no such lawyer.

IPL also questioned whether the union had sufficient interest as a stand-alone party in the case, saying the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor generally represents ratepayers.

“As a membership-based organization that represents or seeks to represent thousands of working families in Indianapolis, SEIU has a direct interest in all policies, public and private, that affect the ability of hard-working women and men to make ends meet,” Maran argued. “Utility rates are one of the main expenses facing working families.”

The union says most janitors are paid $5.25 to $7 an hour. Many work part time and have no health care benefits.

“Even small changes in utility rates can have a major impact on a working family that depends on low-wage service jobs to survive,” Maran said.

At issue is IPL’s ratepayer-funded residential “demand-side management program.” It includes things such as a weatherization program that, through local community groups, spends $475,000 a year insulating homes of low-income customers.

Another service under the program sets aside $286,667 for customers, home builders and heating-cooling contractors to install more energy-efficient HVAC equipment. There’s also the “air-conditioning load management” program, in which 16,000 of IPL’s 465,000 customers in Marion and nine surrounding counties allow the utility to remotely shut down their airconditioners during peak usage periods.

IPL said it asked to extend its current program to 2009, rather than expand it, noting that the commission currently is conducting a “generic” investigation into energy-efficiency and demand-side management programs, including the potential of new technologies.

The Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor supported the extension, although it noted that Indiana “is well below the national average for ratepayerfunded [energy-efficiency]” programs.

“We need to do a lot more in this city. IPL needs to do a lot more for the lowincome folks in this city,” Maran argued.

Many live in older “and sometimes dilapidated housing stock” and “often lack the capital to make investments in energy-efficiency,” she said.

Polk, the attorney representing the perennially intervening Citizens Action Coalition, agrees with Maran that IPL should be doing more.

“They are way behind what Duke Energy has been doing, and Duke needs to do more,” he said.

As for the union’s possibly advocating again in utility issues, “the more the merrier,” Polk added.

The union gained attention in May when six clergy members working with it were arrested at Market Tower during a protest of Executive Management Services. The union and pastors alleged that the cleaning firm intimidated janitors who support a union. The company said it offers competitive pay starting at $7.50 an hour, and benefits.

Nearly two years ago, the union filed charges with the National Labor Relations board against a cleaning contractor whose workers clean office buildings owned by Indianapolis-based Duke Realty Corp. Union officials also went after Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group Inc. on behalf of janitors at its more than 250 shopping malls, eventually reaching an informal agreement to improve pay and conditions.

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