The town meeting vote on nuclear power happened two days ago but I am still getting out from under a pile of dishes and an entanglement of faucets and copper piping. Detergent bubbles fill the air, the u-shaped grease trap is wrapped around my neck, and the porcelain-coated steel basin, lying atop my lap and (ouch!) cutting in to my stomach, is heavy. Vermont Yankee threw everything it had, including the kitchen sink, at local voters to defeat a non-binding resolution against nuclear power.
Specifically, the resolution asked state officials to oppose Vermont Yankee’s sale to the Mississippi-based Entergy Nuclear Company; oppose the extension of Yankee’s operating license; and work towards its ultimate shutdown. I suppose the question is moot for now; the Public Service Board has approved the sale. But the vote is important just the same.
Vermont Yankee spent $46,000 to make its case. I doubt that the anti-nuclear proponents spent a thousand. Yankee’s public relations campaign burst upon Southeastern Vermont the final weekend with postcards, lawn signs, store posters, telephone calls, and innumerable print and broadcasting ads.
Although the opponents of nuclear power carried the day in seven of nine towns in Windham County, supporters of the power plant won big in Brattleboro and won the total county vote, 2471 to 2315. Divide the number of votes by the money Vermont Yankee spent on the campaign and Yankee’s cost came to about $18.60 a vote. This does not include the unanimous pro-nuclear voice vote in Vernon, which has one of the lowest tax rates in Vermont thanks to the taxes paid by the nuclear plant. It would have taken courage to stand up against Vernon’s financial benefactor in that kind of public setting. That’s why democracies have secret ballots.
Vermont Yankee’s campaign spending was legal, of course. Corporate interests, through their campaign contributions, influence the legislation that governs money and politics. Just as candidates who spend the most money almost always win elections for public office (the rate of success is about 90%), interest groups that spend the most money almost always win issue-referendums. It’s usually money, rather than merit, that determines decisions in American politics. There are exceptions, of course; whether all that money helped or hurt the Yankee cause in this election is an interesting question.
Vermonters don’t like to be manipulated. Effective political campaigning represents a delicate equation. When does political assertiveness become rude and boorish? Anti-nuclear activists are not exempt from this problem. I've heard from a couple of Yankee sources that the shut-it-down signs waved by anti-nuclear activists at Bernie Sanders’ informational meeting on nuclear power at Brattleboro Union High School this winter so riled Yankee workers that they decided to get organized and fight back. I'm not surprised. As I suggested to my anti-nuclear friends that evening, it was bad theater. You don’t win friends among people who have questions by sloganeering. You don’t exploit an informational meeting to stick-it to your opponents.
Yankee won this election because it effectively framed the vote in terms of jobs and the local economy. Ten-twenty years ago, Vermont Yankee would have defended nuclear power as safe, cheap and efficient. But no one believes that anymore. In this election, most of the pro-Yankee ads were taken out by labor unions. Their message was directed at people concerned about jobs, their own and those of their neighbors.
I’m a union man myself (National Writers Union, Local 1981 of the UAW AFL/CIO). “Never cross a picket line,” my parents told me, and I never have. It’s a tough one when union members are forced to choose between their jobs and protecting the environment or broader issues of national well-being. The workers at Yankee are my neighbors. Their kids have played with my kids, we’ve done stuff together. I’m sympathetic to their idea that one should be able to keep a job for life. People first; communities count! That’s the way Japan and other countries have tried to organize their economies. But under current global, free market priorities, the promise of job security and the importance of community are being battered.
I spent a productive time in the late 1970s installing solar hot water systems in the Brattleboro area. We had a nascent solar industry in this town, manufacturing and installing solar panels. It was destroyed when the Reagan Administration took the tax credits away from alternative energy. I lost my job. And without public subsidies, there would be no nuclear power. Millions of Americans have lost good jobs because of government policy or corporate decision-making. Brattleboro history is fraught with businesses moving elsewhere and local people losing their jobs: The Book Press, American Optical, Berkshire Fine Spinning and on and on.
What the Vermont Yankee and their union members are advocating is an economic system that this country has decisively (and mistakenly) rejected. If, for financial reasons, Entergy’s board of directors decides to shut Vermont Yankee down, we’ll see how much they care about jobs and the local economy. I dare say that Yankee workers will find more support on issues of jobs and income among anti-nuclear environmentalists than they will among the corporate suits for whom Vermont Yankee (should we call it “Mississippi Yankee” if the deal with Entergy goes through?) is merely a short-term profit center. And if a terrorist flies a plane into the pool where Yankee stores its radioactive fuel, goodbye jobs and goodbye Vermont, and most of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. No number of moonlighting cops can stop such an attack, and no insurance policy is going to cover the disastrous losses.
Union ads swung this vote. The majority of the voters supported jobs, not nuclear power or Yankee’s sale. I wish there was a way of translating this victory into public policy. Alas, protecting jobs and concern for the local economy is, I hardly think, a corporate priority. The idea of neighborliness, community solidarity, and job security for working people is nothing more than a very effective, but insubstantial, public relations device.
Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at email@example.com
Copyright © 2002 by Marty Jezer