There is a crisis in the state of Tennessee: utility shutoffs impacting hundreds of thousands of working-class people. The rise in unemployment and poverty coupled with dismal state benefits during a deadly pandemic have left many families unable to pay their bills.
The Tennessee Public Utility Commission oversees setting the rates and standards of service for privately-owned electric, water, wastewater, natural gas, and telephone utilities in the state. On June 29, 2020, months after the pandemic began, the TPUC ordered all privately-owned gas, electric, water, and wastewater companies to suspend the disconnection of utility services for nonpayment due to the negative economic effects that COVID-19 was having on residents and businesses throughout the state.
The financial reprieve for Tennesseans was both inadequate and short. TPUC’s regulatory jurisdiction and authority only extends to privately-owned utility services. This excludes largely unregulated services provided by any city or county, such as Nashville Electric Service, Metro Water Services, Memphis Gas, Light and Water, and the like.
Tennessee’s municipal power companies date back to the early 20th century New Deal-era funded public utility projects that brought electricity to the rural southeast region. Public-owned utility companies — some of which are joint public-private partnerships — under the capitalist system are not subsidized in their entirety by the state, and still are forced to compete in the market with the private energy sector and are hence profit-making entities just the same.
To make matters worse, TPUC resumed service disconnections for nonpayment of bills on August 29, 2020. Now, the only legal requirement for utility companies is for customers to be provided a written 30-day notice of disconnection prior to their services being shutoff. Most phone companies, both private and public, also were exempt from banning service disconnections.
Just how deep has the utility shut-off crisis cut? As only one example, we can take the Nashville Electric Service, servicing Davidson County, Tennessee. Some 18,052 of the company’s 418,000 residential customers had their electricity disconnected between October 1 and December 15, 2020, due to nonpayment of bills. Because there are 31 companies that fall under the umbrella of the TPUC, one can logically assume that the number of Tennesseans who rely on the privately-owned utility companies and have had their utilities disconnected since August 29, 2020, to be in the hundreds of thousands.
A people’s campaign to fight back
The working class in Tennessee is suffering with shutoffs of essentials like heat, gas, electricity, water and waste collection, a year into a mishandled pandemic. The Stop the Shutoffs Committee, initiated by the Party for Socialism and Liberation in Tennessee, has launched a campaign to demand that the TPUC put a halt on utility shut offs for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession. The campaign also calls for the cancellation of utility debt.
Since February, the PSL in Nashville has been hitting the streets with a petition it created to gather support and organize the community around this issue. PSL organizers have petitioned in downtown, southeast, and north Nashville, raising the demands to people on the street, in local stores, in houses of worship and more. Across the city, there was universal support from everyday people who showed great concern for their neighbors’ well being and were outraged with the utility shutoffs in the state.
Last month on Feb. 12, PSL Nashville held a press conference and turned in the initial petition signatures it gathered to TPUC’s office. PSL organizers in the southeast region have lent their support to the campaign. In Knoxville, Tenn., the PSL spearheaded a Stop the Evictions campaign as an extension of the Cancel the Rents protests it organized in May 2020. While evictions have been temporarily halted in Knoxville through the courts since December 2020, organizers continue to work to build a movement for housing justice by organizing tenants and protesting ruthless big landlords. In the absence of rent cancellation by the federal government, many people will owe thousands of dollars in back rent once the temporary CDC rent moratorium ends.
The PSL believes that water, electricity, waste management and telephone service, should be basic human rights, along with housing. In these trying and unprecedented times, the PSL stands unequivocally with Tennessee’s working class and will fight alongside it. To contact the Stop the Shutoffs Committee, call 615-768-9036.