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Small Massachusetts local stands tall against privatization – and wins

Photo: John Killoy
Small Massachusetts local stands tall against privatization – and wins
By Tim Cauley ·
Tags: Momentum

AFSCME has long stood against privatization of public services and a small Massachusetts local highlighted that opposition recently.


The members of AFSCME Local 939 (Council 93), who work for the Merrimac Municipal Light Department, won a resounding victory in April against an attempt by the Merrimac Board of Selectmen to privatize the agency.  


Merrimac residents get their electricity through a “muni,” a local, publicly owned electricity company. As in many other communities served by munis, the power costs less compared to electricity provided by national companies.  


Merrimac residents line up outside a public hearing as they voted down the town’s plan to privatize the municipal light department. Photo: John Killoy

The light department’s Board of Commissioners put a proposal to privatize the utility on the agenda for an April public hearing.  


Local 939’s seven members, led by Chair Matt Shwom, swung into action. With the assistance of Council 93 staff, they drafted a campaign plan, developed flyers, ordered lawn signs, knocked on doors, created a Facebook page, enlisted the support of the Merrimack Valley Central Labor Council, mobilized union members and residents, and educated them on ways to voice their concerns at the meeting.  


“This plan was on a fast track and we had very little time to plan and react,” said Council 93 Executive Director Mark Bernard, who’s also an AFSCME vice president. “Although there are just seven Local 939 members working at the light plant and the Board of Selectmen was stacked against us, we always operate on the principle of ‘no problem too big and no local too small.’”


“In the few short weeks leading up to the vote, we mobilized our field staff and our legal, communications and legislative departments. We also secured the help of the area Central Labor Council. It was a textbook example of a council working in collaboration with a local union and the results speak for themselves,” Bernard said.


Not only did Local 939 members rally the community behind them, they also gained unlikely allies – the managers of the light department, who also opposed privatization, Shwom said.  


“The community came out for us big time. Municipal utilities like ours are community-driven and are tightly connected to the cities and towns they serve, unlike investor-owned utilities like National Grid, who answer to distant shareholders,” Shwom said. “It’s special – we know the customers, they know us, and we deal with them directly. This brought us even closer to the community but also made allies of management. For us, we hope this is an example that there doesn’t always have to exist this world of warfare between management and union.” 


After three weeks of campaigning, the hard work of AFSCME members bore fruit. More than 800 people showed up to the April 24 hearing. Some 200 of them didn’t fit in the building. Town officials had to go outside to register them and get their votes as residents waited in the cold and the rain.  


The proposal to sell the light department failed by a vote of 7 in favor, 782 against.  


The fact that the residents of Merrimac, who rely on Local 939 members to keep the lights on, came out on a cold, rainy night to have their voices heard and resoundingly reject the privatization plan serves as a testament to the value of public service workers.  


Meanwhile, Joel Breen, the selectman who proposed privatizing the Merrimac Light Department, lost his reelection bid two weeks later.   


Therese “TJ” Cooper, a Council 93 staff representative who was instrumental in leading the campaign from the beginning, summarized her experience this say: “There are times that management and the union can unite and work together. The biggest takeaway here (is) ... never underestimate the power of even the smallest union. Not only did they defeat this ridiculous proposal, but they united a town.” 


Shwom said Local 939’s success in fighting back privatization should be a model for others.  


“They wanted to sell and pillage money from municipal services, but our work and dedication in providing services spoke for itself that night,” he said. “This wasn’t the first attempt to do this in Massachusetts, and it certainly won’t be the last here or elsewhere. But we will always stay vigilant, and when we do, we win.” 

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