Somerset Waters, a journeyman wireman member of L.A. Local 11, believes one of the keys to success for a company, or any enterprise for that matter, is placing trust in one’s co-workers.
Waters is putting his theory to the test at Pacific Electric Worker-Owned Co. OP (PEWOC), a worker-owned co-operative employing Local 11 electricians. Now a five-employee signatory contractor, PEWOC hopes to expand to 100 owner-members targeting the installation of solar systems and other electrical systems and energy retrofits for residential and commercial customers across Los Angeles County.
|Pacific Electric Worker-Owned Co.Op encourages members of Local 11 to build their own solar accounts in their neighborhoods and regions.
“It’s really exciting pushing the boundaries of how a small business can operate here,” Waters said in a story in Capital and Main.
Before he was organized in during 2011 at Local 11, Waters had run his own electrical maintenance shop. In 2007, he sold his shop to SolarCity, the nation’s largest residential solar provider, and went to work for the company. “They had a smooth-running operation,” says Waters. “But I wanted to move away from the traditional corporate model.”
So Waters researched different models of worker cooperatives and sought assistance from LA WORCS, one of several worker ownership resources and cooperative services groups that emerged in several cities after the nationwide protests of the “Occupy” movement in 2012.
Launched in 2011 as “Occupy Wall Street,” the movement, which spread internationally, focused upon the growing monopolization of economic and political power by the nation’s wealthiest one percent.
“One of the next steps of Occupy,” says Waters, “was to explore and incubate other models of ownership.”
Solar projects offer a fertile terrain for co-ops, says the Baltimore-born electrician. “People want to have a relationship with the crew climbing on their roof to install solar systems,”says Waters, who launched PEWOC in 2014, partnering with Ralph Christian.
Waters invites IBEW journeymen who are dispatched to his shop to demonstrate their effectiveness on the job and become owners of the company.
“Once we vet candidates for ownership,” he says, “We encourage electricians to build their own accounts in their own neighborhoods and sections of L.A. County. It’s a decentralized, market recovery model since L.A. is too big to take on as a whole.”
“This is how I want to live my life,” says Waters. “ I’m one of the founders of PEWOC, but we have a healthy hierarchy, a healthy amount of responsibility and mutual trust.”
While worker co-ops have a long history in the U.S., Waters and other recent participants in that sector are pushing for more legislative and political support. A bill proposed in the California Assembly, for instance, would make it easier for worker-owned businesses to meet licensing requirements.
“We talk a lot about democracy in the United States,” Waters told Capital and Main, “But generally democracy stops at the door of the workplace.” Cooperatives, he says, offer the opportunity to draw upon the initiative and skills of workers in a non-exploitative and democratic environment.
View a video on Pacific Electrical Worker-Owned Co.Op and Local 11’s solar revolution. The video was produced by Kelly Candaele, son of an IBEW member, who was profiled in the Fall 2008 issue of The IBEW Journal.
Somerset Waters is available to communicate with other IBEW members about his experience in solar installations and worker ownership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org