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A social uprising for energy democracy

Trade Unions

350.org under a Creative Commons Licence

Power struggle

Josua Mata – head of one of the Philippines’ biggest trade union alliances – speaks quickly, with enthusiasm. As Secretary-General of SENTRO (Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Mangagawa), his job is to uphold the interests of over 80,000 workers spread across the private and public sectors. Right now, though, he is talking to me about climate change.

‘This year, for the first time, we had a national conference of 39 unions that agreed a shared platform on climate. We know that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is not going in the direction it should be going, so we felt that the labour movement, which is the first and last line of defence of the working class, should throw its weight much more thoroughly into the campaign.’

Pulling together a joint union statement of this kind was no mean feat. As Mata succinctly puts it, ‘Because we are living in a country where we are still dodging bullets while trying to build unions, we have been much more engrossed in trying to fight for collective bargaining agreements and other gut-level issues of the working class. So it’s easy to understand why climate change has not been on the labour movement’s radar here, apart from a few of us who were talking about it.’

Despite these challenges, a powerful alliance between workers, communities and environmental campaigners is now being built in the Philippines. This is exactly the kind of movement-building that we need to generate real action on climate change (see our recent article Forget Paris?). Mata is clear on the lessons that the global climate movement should learn from the Philippines experience. The key elements, he says, were on-the-ground solidarity, plus the twin concepts of energy democracy and climate jobs. ‘These ideas gave us a way to link people’s day-to-day struggles into the campaign for climate justice.’

Energy from below

For thousands of people in the Philippines, energy democracy is more than just a slogan – it’s the difference between having access to affordable electricity and being cut off. Josua tells me the remarkable tale of the rural fightback against energy privatization.

In the 1970s, the Marcos dictatorship – partly in a bid for public favour, partly as a way of flushing out rebels – began electrifying the previously unconnected countryside through the creation of rural energy co-operatives. By the 2000s – after the investment of billions in state funds – 119 electricity co-ops were giving 95% of rural areas access to electricity, with the proceeds flowing back to the communities involved. However, after the final privatization of the national energy grid in 2001, the Philippines’ big energy companies began looking around for new acquisitions; they were ‘scrambling for these electricity co-operatives, wanting to buy them up and take them over.’

Things came to a head in 2008. ‘A company [the San Miguel Energy Corporation] tried to take over a co-operative in a place called Albay, south of Manila. The workers in the co-operative [the Albay Electric Cooperative, ALECO] really fought hard, and managed to prevent the privatization for five years. Until at the end of 2013, the government forced a local referendum, and they did it just like any other elections in the Philippines, by buying people off. This is a country that grew up under the tutelage of US democracy, so they taught us the idea of government ‘for the people, buy the people”. So that’s what our government did, in cahoots with the energy corporation – they bought up the votes of the poor. And so they won the vote.

Power struggle

‘The first thing the company did was raise the electricity rates. Then they bungled all the billing statements – there was even a guy who got billed for tens of thousands of pesos of electricity that he never used. That really angered people, and many started boycotting the company, refusing to pay their bills. Then came the clincher. A typhoon arrived, in 2014, and knocked down a lot of electricity posts and connections, and the corporation had the gall to tell thousands of people ‘we will not reconnect you, because you’re participating in the boycott.’ So the workers – who were out on the picket lines, on strike against the privatization – they said ‘OK, if the corporation will not connect you, we will do it for you.’ And so they went into the communities to reconnect people, before returning to their picket lines.

It was a complete revolution, a social uprising. The people were defending their unofficial connection, because they felt that the corporation had screwed them over so badly

‘When the company found out that the people had been reconnected – without permission! – the corporation started sending people to cut off the supply, and so the people would call the union again, who would go back, and reconnect them. It went on and on this way, and the community just got so pissed about losing their electricity again and again. Finally, on one occasion when the corporation’s workers had climbed up the poles to cut them off again, the people mobilized. They filled up the streets and told the corporation’s people ‘if you dare cut that, you won’t be able to come down off those posts.’ So it was a complete revolution, a social uprising. The people were defending their unofficial connection, because they felt that the corporation had screwed them over so badly.’

New connections

Mata and others realised that this was, in fact, an uprising for energy democracy. People were coming together to demand control over their energy supply – something with huge relevance not just to people’s ability to access electricity, but also to the climate crisis. A global shift away from fossil fuels will be much easier if energy is under democratic control. Meanwhile, compared with fossil fuels or nuclear, most renewable power is easier to run in a decentralized way – something the Filipino unions are now turning to their advantage.

‘The corporation is still trying to cut the electricity to various communities. And so we figured, well, if people are going to keep losing their electricity, then maybe we should provide an alternative. So we started retraining our striking workers in how to install and maintain solar panels. The idea is that they’ll sell these solar panels themselves, to the communities.’

‘We’re hoping we can shift people away from the grid, so that people and households will have their own electricity, whether the corporations provide it or not. That’s when we realised that, hey, we are actually creating climate jobs.’

‘That’s how we connected with these ideas – climate jobs and energy democracy – and realised: this is exactly what we need. There were always people who didn’t respond to the call for climate action because they had a lot of other issues to fight for. But now they realise that in fact we’re not asking them to fight something new in addition to their other struggles – it’s connected to the whole system, to their day-to-day issues. That is how we’ve ended up with a union platform on climate change, and with this exciting and growing campaign. On 30 November the labour movement will bring thousands of people – working class people – out on the streets in the Philippines under the banner of ‘system change not climate change’, calling for climate jobs, calling for energy democracy. It’s going to be the biggest ever labour rally on climate in this country. All the other climate groups will join us, but the biggest part will be the labour movement.’

‘Our analysis is very clear: we have to alter the political and economic system that’s driving us towards climate disaster. So the question is: how do we build enough power to force governments and international bodies to act in the way that the people want them to? The kinds of alliances we’re building are an important step towards creating that power.’


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