How Kilowatt Socialism Saved L.A. From the Energy Crisis

Jeff Stansbury is a PhD candidate in American history at UCLA. His dissertation is on the role of the labor movement in the building of L.A.'s infrastructure

Why is Los Angeles an island of tranquillity in the electric-power crisis that has rocked California and threatens to spread across the nation?

News stories have repeatedly told us that the city’s ownership and operation of its own generating stations is the principal reason. By staying clear of the state’s 1996 deregulation scheme for private utilities, the Department of Water and Power was able to hold onto its power plants.

So far, so good. But when we ask how Los Angeles came to enjoy public power in the first place, the answer commonly given makes a hash of history.

Most historians and political scientists credit the city’s progressive reform movement of 1890-1915 for having wisely settled on a municipal utility. True, some of the entrepreneurs, lawyers and reform-minded professionals who called themselves “the best men” during that era agitated for the city-built Owens Valley aqueduct and its generating stations. But many reformers opposed the city’s effort to distribute its own power. Because they had allied themselves with railway magnate Henry Huntington, who owned an electric company, or because they favored regulation over municipal ownership, they wanted L.A.'s three private electric companies to sell and profit from aqueduct power. Meyer Lissner, a reform attorney often portrayed as a champion of public power, opposed the holding of a decisive 1911 citywide straw poll on the subject because he knew most Angelenos would cast their ballots for municipal ownership. That, he said, would be “unfair” to the three utilities.


The most steadfast partisans of public power were not progressive reformers like Lissner but the city’s much-maligned labor unions, and for a simple reason. While mistrust of oligopoly ran through nearly all sectors of society, it burned hottest in working-class wards. Without organized labor’s dogged campaign for “gas and water socialism,” as well as its willingness to hand control of these resources to the anti-union regimes of Mayors George Alexander and Henry Rose, there would be no DWP today.

Organized labor played a key role in the city’s original decision to municipalize its water distribution system. On Oct. 24, 1892, 700 union members met to demand that the city build a small neighborhood waterworks as a step toward public control of the entire water supply. From that day on, L.A.'s unions never wavered in their call for a public water supply publicly managed. They mobilized the rank and file for the water-company buyouts of 1901-04, and, in 1906, the Public Ownership Party’s citywide campaign primed voters to pour $23 million into construction of the Owens River aqueduct a year later. The aqueduct was the sine qua non of public power. At a time when most progressive reformers were mute on the subject, organized labor insisted that the aqueduct be used to generate electricity for the city’s streets, homes and businesses.

A broad consensus backed the city’s construction of hydroelectric plants while the aqueduct was being built, but most of the city’s politicians and corporate lobbyists were committed to public subsidies, not public ownership, of aqueduct power. The 1911 straw poll, in which city voters declared their support for municipal ownership and distribution of Owens River power, upset their plans.

The most consistent fighters for public power during the decades after the straw poll were the Central Labor Council, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, other unions and city employees who stuffed campaign envelopes, canvassed precincts and got out the vote. Voters who favored municipally owned power and initiatives bolstering the DWP tended to be working class and Democratic; those opposed were mainly middle and upper class and Republican.


In this polarized political climate, Mayor Alexander called for a $6.5-million bond issue to complete the aqueduct-power distribution network; he left open the question of who would sell the power to consumers. Unions and socialists tied their support for the bonds to a city charter reform that would guarantee them a long-sought role in city government through proportional representation. When the reform failed at the polls, they withheld support from the power bonds, and these, too, went down to defeat in 1913. Much of the rancor workers felt was aimed at progressives like Lissner, head of the Good Government Organization, who fought labor’s charter plank because it would bring socialists onto the City Council.

The labor movement’s dedication to public ownership soon reasserted itself, however. With a citywide election coming up that June, five unionists seeking council seats on the Socialist Party ticket revived labor’s long-standing demand for city operation of all public utilities at cost. They urged the City Council to hold a new power-bond election with a clear public ownership mandate. They attacked the power companies’ efforts to buy aqueduct power from the city and sell it to Angelenos at a profit. Soon, the great majority of unions in the Central Labor Council were locked in what turned out to be a decisive struggle against the power oligopoly made up of Southern California Edison, Pacific Light & Power and Los Angeles Gas & Electric.

An unprecedented event brightened the bonds’ chances. A machinist, Fred C. Wheeler, won a seat on the City Council, the first unionist to do so in the 20th century. Wheeler led a successful fight against an attempt to split the power-bond issue into two separate ballot propositions, one to complete the aqueduct’s generating stations, the other to create a city-owned distribution system. Such a division would probably have doomed public power.

The large majority of unionists who favored public power had little time to savor Wheeler’s victory. While pressing the attack on the three electric companies, they faced a small but angry split in their own ranks. Dissenters in the Building Trades Council and a few of its unions argued that labor’s grievances against the progressive regimes of 1909-14 had turned the argument for municipal ownership on its head. What good was municipal ownership in the hands of a council and mayor who had caused the arrest of hundreds of peaceful picketers during the citywide strikes of 1910, had underpaid aqueduct workers and fed them bad food and had denied unionists influential city jobs? The final blow was the council’s rebuff of a petition signed by thousands of workers for a “living wage” law. Was it not folly to reward labor’s foes with control of the aqueduct’s power?


Union activists who favored the bonds conceded that the dissenters were correct in their assessment of “progressive” city government. But the progressive star was fading. What counted in the long run was whether Los Angeles could wrest the city’s electric power system from the grasp of private utilities. The Central Labor Council’s unions took this challenge to heart and voted, 60-4, for a resolution favoring the bonds.

On its own, as well as in coalition with other groups, the labor movement marshaled its rank and file on behalf of public power. It turned out hundreds of poll-watchers and canvassers on election day. The pro-bond unions never did win over the dissenting faction; rather, they overwhelmed it at the polls. On May 8, 1914, L.A.'s voters emphatically endorsed the power bonds by a hefty 71%-29%, with the city’s working-class wards providing by far the largest margin of victory.

Within a year, Los Angeles sold its bonds and began buying out the three investor-owned utilities. The first public power flowed into local homes and businesses in 1916. Two decades later, the DWP eliminated the last of its private competition and consolidated the working-class legacy of kilowatt and water socialism that has served the city so well in the current energy crisis.