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AFSCME Members Fight Privatization of Florida Public Utility

AFSCME members in Jacksonville, Florida, have won the first round in their fight to prevent the local electric utility from falling into private hands.
Photo Credit: Sungjin Kim / Getty
AFSCME Members Fight Privatization of Florida Public Utility
By Mark McCullough ·

The publicly run electric authority in Jacksonville, Florida, is a target for privatization, but members of Local 429 (AFSCME Florida) are fighting to stop that from happening. And they won the first round.

Since the 1880s, municipal employees have 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 simply known by its initials, JEA, and grew into an independent, publicly run authority. 

Today, JEA is the eighth largest community-owned electric utility in the United States and largest in Florida. It’s a source of pride to many in the area, especially the 190 men and women who joined together in AFSCME Local 429.

But advocates for privatizing public services see JEA as ripe for the taking. 

Not if AFSCME members can help it. 

“It sounds great that you are going to get all this cash for something you already have … 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. 

When members of AFSCME and other local unions learned about JEA CEO Paul McElroy’s privatization plan, they united their voices and pushed back.

Given Mayor Lenny Curry’s support for privatization, it seemed at first that they were fighting a lost cause. But Crowe and her team discovered 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.  

Union members showed up at public hearings and meetings wearing red “JEA is Ours” shirts, wrote letters to the editor and op-eds, and organized community groups to explain what was at stake. Most importantly, they made it clear that as long as privatization remains an issue, they will continue making their voices heard.

“This is not like selling your house for a premium and walking away with no further commitment to that house,” Crowe and other local labor leaders wrote in an op-ed. “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.”

Faced with a wall of opposition, Curry announced last month he won’t submit any JEA privatization plan to the City Council. 

“We won this round, but we are not closing up this campaign,” said Crowe. “We are going to keep fighting, keep pushing our allies to stay vigilant and keep telling our co-workers that the stronger our AFSCME voice the better our chances of winning will be.”

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