On Tuesday evening, a boisterous group of protesters, with a band in tow, peacefully marched through the streets of Wayland Square before gathering outside the home of the Rhode Island Public Utilities Commission (PUC) Chairperson Margaret Curran.
As onlookers gaped at the 40 person strong crowd, many of whom were in costume, Providence’s What Cheer Brigade led the marchers through songs and chants that called on the PUC to do more to help low-income Rhode Islanders and expressed frustration with National Grid.
Power to the people
The timing of the march was appropriate, as the PUC met Tuesday afternoon in Warwick to vote on an emergency measure to allow those without power to pay ten percent of what they owe to restore their service. Providence Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which organized the event, thanked the PUC for implementing the emergency measure, but said that many people were unable to attend the day-time meeting at the PUC Headquarters in Warwick. “This meeting was held at a time and place that were inconvenient for many people. We need democratic, open, and accessible meetings, so we can put the ‘public’ back in ‘Public Utility Commission,’” said Corey Krajewski, a member of Providence DSA’s Executive Committee.
The group also urged the PUC to do more. Providence DSA and groups such as the George Wiley Center have advocated for a Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP). This plan would allow Rhode Islanders to pay a percentage of their income towards their utility bills instead of the less equitable system now in place. By everyone paying their fair share, the plan would prevent lower-income residents from facing a shutoff in the first place. PIPP worked in Rhode Island in the 1980s and is successfully preventing shutoffs in other states across the country.
Out in the Cold
This is the time of year when having access to heat becomes vitally important to Rhode Island families. Although the winter moratorium and emergency measure are important safeguards, there are still far too many shutoffs in Rhode Island. From 2014 – 2015, over 20,000 households in Rhode Island faced utility shutoffs. That figure may increase as the effects of recent National Grid rate hikes are felt around the state.
According to Pawtucket resident Mae Mallon, “[i]t is heartbreaking when families want to have others over for the holidays and they can’t because there are no lights and it is freezing.” Mallon called on the PUC to “[m]ake it more affordable so people can be restored.”
National Grid, a privately held utility company, received strident denunciations from many in attendance. According to the Energy Information Administration, Rhode Island residents pay some of the highest utility rates in the country and starting October 1, electric rates increased by an average of $19 per household. Meanwhile, National Grid makes a profit of over $3.5 billion dollars a year.
Putting the public back in public utilities
Providence DSA’s goal is to build a better, more democratic, publicly owned utility. Here’s our vision for real and meaningful utilities reform:
- Stop and reverse all utilities shutoffs. Nobody should lose access to a human necessity such as heat or electricity because they can’t afford to pay.
- Implement the Percentage Income Payment Plan. PIPP, which has been used successfully before in Rhode Island, would ensure low-income customers would have continuous access to utilities by coupling their bill with their income.
- Stop National Grid’s excessive rate increases. We will stand up to National Grid when it tries to pad its $3.5 billion in profits by price-gouging Rhode Islanders.
- Democratize Rhode Island’s utilities through truly public ownership. We want to build a utilities system owned and directed democratically by the people of Rhode Island that will allow us to engage in a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
[From a press release]
A note on the video: Because it was revealed at the PUC meeting earlier in the day that PUC Chair Curran was unable to be at the hearing because she wasn’t feeling well, the rally, which had been loud with chants and music quieted down, delivered the banners and letter to Curran’s home, and left quietly, resuming their music and chants a couple house down the street.
ProvDSA is a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest socialist organization in the United States. DSA members are building progressive movements for social change while establishing an openly democratic socialist presence in American communities and politics. At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end. As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people, such as stopping utility shutoffs and implementing a Percentage Income Payment Plan. Our vision is of a society in which people have a real voice in the choices and relationships that affect the entirety of our lives. We call this vision democratic socialism — a vision of a more free, democratic and humane society.