Tuesday and Wednesday I was at the People’s Development Academy in Toledo City. The officers of unions and associations of electric coop employees were meeting for a national conference, and I was invited as a resource person.
Some years back, Fr. Paking Silva, then NEA Administrator, encouraged the unions and associations to form the National Solidarity of Unions and the National Solidarity of Association – NSU/NSA.
He had initially been investing in motivating and training the Board of Directors and General Managers of electric coops. The directors and managers are organized into PHILRECA, the Philippine Rural Electric Cooperatives Association, and into NAGMEC, the National Association of General Managers of Electric Cooperatives.
Fr. Paking looked at the NSU/NSA as a check and balance to these two organizations. But he also warned the unions and associations: “Just in case you abuse your power and insist on unreasonable demands, I also encourage the organization of member-consumers and advocates.”
Since December 2001, Fr. Paking has asked me to help in preparing the electric coops for the changes that the EPIRA law would usher in. Working with him and the electric coops has been a rapid learning experience, both challenging and heartwarming.
Whenever I address workshops of the electric coops, I always express my thanks that I have been invited to be part of the rural electrification movement. My only regret is that I didn’t get involved much earlier.
This year, the mission of the electric coops and NEA to extend power lines to every barangay, sitio and household in rural Philippines has reached one more milestone – the 8 millionth household connection. The next target is to energize 100% of rural barangays and most of the sitios by the end of 2009. That would be one additional reason to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the rural electrification movement.
But on the eve of the 40th anniversary, the electric coops almost got blindsided. I had my first inkling of the problem on October 30 when Girlie showed me a paid ad in the Inquirer, signed by the presidents of PHILRECA, NAGMEC and AMRECO, the Association of Mindanao Electric Cooperatives. It expressed their vigorous opposition to House Bill 4312 and Senate Bill 2264, both of which had been passed on the third reading.
NEA Administrator Edith Bueno invited me to a meeting where the officers of the electric coops discussed how they could make their position known to the bicameral conference that was meeting in a few days. My initial worry was that their moves might be too late. “How could these amendments pass without your knowing it in advance?” I asked.
It turned out that they had been monitoring the bills filed with the committee on energy. But the objectionable amendments were included in bills filed with the committee on cooperatives. Ironically, the chair of the House committee on cooperatives and main sponsor of the amendments is from the APEC party list, which is supposed to represent the electric coops.
“What do you think of the paid ad?” they asked me. I said frankly that the main impression it creates is that the leaders of coops are expressing their opposition to two bills, but what they oppose, and why, doesn’t come across clearly. A lawyer-friend later expressed a similar reaction. He asked me, “What are they really opposing?”
After listening to their discussions, I distilled the following points in their arguments:
They object to the amendments because they were passed without proper consultation with those who are affected by the bills – the electric coops.
They object to the amendments because it imposes a deadline on the electric coops currently registered with NEA to register with the Cooperative Development Authority within three years. If they don’t they face penalites including the prohibition to use the name of “cooperative.” The EPIRA law does give ECs the option of shifting to being stock coops or even stock corporations, and register with the CDA and SEC, but on a voluntary basis, without deadlines.
They object to the amendments because it allows non-stock, non-profit electric coops to register with the CDA even without fulfilling the requirements of stock coops. Worse, the decision can be made by a general assembly of only 100 members, considered as constituting a quorum.
This last item struck me as really odd, since electric coops have tens of thousands of members, with the large ones having more than 100,000 members.
There were many other arguments in support of their objections. I occasionally joined in the discussion. The main point I suggested was that member consumers and the public at large may not be that concerned about whether ECs remain registered with NEA or transfer to CDA. The key question they will ask is “What will be the effect of these changes on the rates we have to pay?”
Based on background information they shared, the amendments seem to be directed at ECs and at NEA by proponents who have privately admitted to having grievances. But I told the agitated EC leaders that they should not be drawn into ad hominem arguments, even if vested interests are evident.
In my opinion, the most relevant issue is this. Should rural electrification be pursued and maintained by “non-stock, non-profit” ECs or should ECs become “stock, for profit” coops?
Obviously, a “for profit” EC has to have rates that give its stockholders a profit, up to 12%. That is legitimate for a for-profit coop or corporation engaged in public utilities, but it means that rates have to be higher than if the EC remains non-stock, non-profit.
A director from ORMECO, the electric coop that serves my hometown, added that it is non-stock, non-profit ECs that extend electric lines even to far flung barangays that are not profitable. “Whenever we suffer from typhoons, the ECs and NEA organize Task Force Kapatid – composed of other ECs assisting in the quick rehabilitation of the affected ECs.” He was not sure that for-profit ECs would do this.
I left Toledo yesterday afternoon, while the NSU/NSA participants were reporting the results of their own small group discussions about the pros and cons of the various amendments. Last I heard, they are preparing their own joint statement on the issues, asking that their voices be heard as stakeholders.
As I write, I recall a question asked during session I facilitated. An experienced union leaders posed the question: “Will the senators and congressmen listen to our voices?”