Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Want a Green New Deal? Start by Protecting the Tennessee Valley Authority

The Tennessee Valley Authority is one of the New Deal’s greatest achievements: a publicly owned utility with a large, unionized workforce right in the heart of America. But now it’s under threat.

Close-up of William Gropper's "Construction of a Dam" (1939). Department of the Interior / Wikimedia

Supporters of the Green New Deal (GND) draw inspiration from the federal government’s bold experiments of the 1930s. But there’s one progressive model from that era still standing — and thriving — which goes virtually unmentioned by today’s GND activists: the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Today, the TVA still generates electricity for 10 million people across seven states. And the municipal power company of Chattanooga, Tennessee today operates the country’s most successful and advanced public fiber internet service thanks to the TVA’s 1939 acquisition of the state’s for-profit utility company TEPCO.

That should all sound familiar to supporters of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Green New Deal. The TVA is, in fact, our best example of public power — and it’s already here. Bernie’s Green New Deal plan even sought to expand the TVA and create more institutions like it, giving them a mandate to build even cleaner electricity generators and nationwide high-speed internet service.

But right now they’re facing a crisis — one that threatens to unravel the TVA’s mission entirely. And despite the popularity of the Green New Deal, the unionized workers at the TVA haven’t heard a thing from progressive activists.

“Our union Local hasn’t heard from any,” says Gay Henson, a longtime employee of the TVA and president of the TVA Engineering Association (IFPTE Local 1937). And the union is looking for all the help it can get.

It’s a divide between a younger activist set and an older (and offline) unionized workforce deep in the heart of Red State America. And if it’s not bridged soon, it spells disaster not only for the TVA but for the Green New Deal itself.

Workers at TVA Are Unionized and High-Skilled — And Now They’re Being Threatened with Outsourcing Abroad

The Tennessee Valley Authority’s federally mandated mission was to modernize that region’s economy (which includes not only Tennessee but Kentucky, Alabama, and Mississippi) by harnessing the power of an extensive river system. At the time, the Tennessee Valley was an agricultural wasteland and deeply impoverished, with a per capita income less than half of the national average and about a third of the population stricken with malaria.

The New Deal approach taken by the TVA was to transfer private assets into federal control and to invest in massive construction projects, with the goal, as FDR put it, “to extend planning to a wider field.” The generation and distribution of electricity — for public good and not for profit — became a major function of the TVA.

“We are a utility designed by the federal government, and what I consider to be one of the greatest legislative achievements of all time, to bring this region and these people out of poverty,” says Henson.

But modern management practices are today threatening this public institution.

Right now, TVA management is planning to outsource 108 jobs in software development and information technology (IT) to French global consulting firm Capgemini. That’s 20 percent of its IT workforce, and there’s another 150 on the chopping block soon after. Worse, they’re breaking union contract to do it.

“This is totally unprecedented in the TVA,” Henson tells me. Her union, which has been fighting the outsourcing for months, represents the vast majority of the vulnerable jobs.

The union even took to Twitter for the first time recently in an attempt to attract media and political attention. At the time of this writing they have five tweets and nine followers, falling far short of the attention given to many GND activists on social media, like the Sunrise Movement.

To justify the outsourcing, TVA’s Chief Information Officer offered cold management-speak: “We’re looking to leverage the market with people who have the expertise to help us deliver more technology to help move TVA along that path of continuous improvement.” Though just a few weeks ago he was heaping praise on IT’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, itself hot on the heels of a devastating tornado in the area, deeming their work “nothing short of stellar.”

By TVA management’s own admission to the union, outsourcing the jobs won’t even save the TVA money. “You think it means money,” Henson says. “But this is not even cheaper.” The union instead wants to change work duties to accommodate training in new IT methodologies.

One of the TVA’s historical roles is to cultivate technological expertise in the Tennessee Valley. In other words, it has embodied a politics of technology that centers the working people of the interior, not just the international, MIT-and-Ivy-educated technologists — and venture capital — that congregate on the American coasts.

But by driving this IT work out of the TVA and into companies around the globe, TVA management is making a fundamental break with that New Deal legacy.

“Our people spent their whole lives on this. TVA management is sacrificing our mission of serving the people of this region, of giving back to communities,” she says. “Either the TVA Act means something or it don’t. Either TVA follows the mission or it don’t.”

Union Busting a Public Utility — In the Middle of a Pandemic

The timing couldn’t be worse — the global coronavirus pandemic has created twin crises of jobs and health. Since late March about 26 million American workers have suddenly found themselves unemployed.

“It is heartless to do this at this particular time,” Henson says. The union calculates it’s an $88 million gut punch to the local economy in direct lost wages over the next five years. Because of the coronavirus crisis, Tennessee alone is already projected to permanently lose 2 percent of its workforce.

“We’re gonna send you home while the country is spending trillions of dollars,” Henson puts it, referring to the federal government’s economic stimulus packages. “Why would this be allowed in a country like the United States of America? To let workers go home and contract out to companies, where the bottom dollar goes to some other country.”

Overall ,the TVA Engineering Association represents 2,500 workers among the TVA’s total workforce of about 10,000. While exact numbers across the entire TVA are hard to come by, at least half the workforce is represented by various unions. At the Watts Bar nuclear power plant, for example, it’s 74 percent of the 850 TVA employees there.

But those numbers are declining. Just a decade ago there were over 12,000 TVA employees; at its peak in 1981, there were over 50,000.

In terms of union density, the TVA is a labor stronghold in the South. All the more reason protecting it, alongside its workers, must be a priority for the Left — and for anyone prioritizing good union jobs and lasting public infrastructure in the United States.

How to Save the TVA — And Take the First Step to the Green New Deal

What can be done about TVA’s outsourcing of 100 jobs today and 150 jobs tomorrow? One tool that unions normally have is the essential power to withhold their labor — to strike. But as employees of a federal agency, TVA workers are legally prohibited from striking.

“We’ve had a great labor relationship in the TVA through the years. But it’s not the same the past three or four years.” In the past, a change that affects so many jobs would lead to a conversation between the union and the TVA Board of Directors — political appointments made by the White House.

Not anymore, Henson says.

While Henson is reluctant to blame Trump’s selections, four of his six appointees to the TVA Board had careers spanning leadership positions at several banks, private equity groups, both the Chicago and New York Stock Exchanges, and the general counsel of the Republican National Committee.

Henson now aims to build political pressure against TVA management through the media and through politicians from both parties. In the Tennessee Valley, appreciation for the TVA is bipartisan — another sign of its lasting power as a public good. While the two Republican Senators from Tennessee are conspicuously silent on the fate of these workers, she says Alabama Senator Doug Jones (D) is trying to convince the TVA to reverse the move, along with Alabama Representative Mo Brooks (R).

But despite anti-outsourcing rhetoric, the White House is unlikely to intervene. Earlier this year, Trump proposed privatizing a chunk of the TVA — its transmission system that carries electricity across the region — an idea so divorced from political reality that even the Republican Senators of Tennessee, joined by Democrat and Republican Representatives, issued a rare public criticism of him.

It’s not just the Trump White House either. In his 2014 budget proposal to Congress, President Obama went even further than Trump by aiming to privatize the TVA entirely. “Goodbye, New Deal” indeed. Recognizing an attack on a working-class institution, labor fought back.

At the 2013 AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, delegates from over fifty labor unions representing over 13 million workers unanimously passed a resolution to “work with Congress in opposing any effort by the Obama Administration to […] move toward selling the TVA to private interests.” The resolution was co-sponsored by the IFPTE along with departments representing about thirty unions in the building trades. In the end Obama backed off privatization — a reminder that when unions flex their muscles, they can get the goods.

How TVA Workers and GND Activists Can Work Together Today

On the Left today, where the “Green” part of Green New Deal attracts more excitement than the “New Deal” part, the actually-existing labor unions in the energy sector seem to be an afterthought.

They’re too conservative, too committed to fossil fuels, one often hears, and the phrase “just transition” — replacing their current dirty jobs with new clean ones — comes far easier for many on the Left than it does for the workers they’re talking about.

In too many circles these workers are less political agents of change than a minority interest group. Perhaps that’s why the AFL-CIO Energy Committee opposed AOC’s original resolution for a Green New Deal.

But these existing unions are the institutions the Left must champion and, as the AFL-CIO’s call for a fully public TVA demonstrates, they’re the ones with the real commitment — and the power — to fight for those institutions devoted to working people, not profit for billionaires.

When asked how we can bridge the gap between, on the one hand, a youthful Left committed to the politics of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a Green New Deal, and on the other hand, the energy workers and their unions, Henson had one piece of advice in particular. One that will be hard for many — if not most — activists to hear.

“Nuclear power is a major part of that gap,” she said. While still controversial among many progressives, among technology that exists today, nuclear is the world’s proven method of replacing fossil fuels for electricity generation. It’s responsible for 20 percent of all electricity generated in the United States and a majority of our emissions-free electricity, while providing highly-skilled, high-paying — and highly unionized — operational jobs to boot. It’s what employs about a third of the TVA’s workforce.

And its record with regard to climate change is clear. Nuclear power has rapidly decarbonized energy sectors in Ontario, France, and Sweden, where it’s 60 percent, 75 percent, and 40 percent of electricity generated, respectively. But some on the Left are staunch opponents of even the existing nuclear power plants, a position that puts them at odds with the International Energy Agency and famed climate scientist James Hansen.

If we want a Green New Deal we must prove to the workers and unions in the energy sector not just that we’re on their side, but that they’re an essential part of our common goal — a massive jobs program that ratchets up unionization and helps us avert climate disaster.

Let’s start by protecting America’s greatest institution of public power — one of the last major accomplishments of the New Deal not only still standing but thriving. It’s a progressive inheritance that GND activists should not only protect but cherish.