After two days of hearing about the increasing encroachment by the utility industry on his stock and trade, Georgia contractor Danny Richardson had enough. As a special forum on unfair utility competition drew to a close last August, Richardson stood up and challenged the other 70 PHCC members in attendance to put their money where their hearts were.

A pledge sheet was passed around and, as a result, about $5,000 was promised by those in the room to be earmarked for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-National Association’s fight against unfair utility practices.

“We received pledges ranging from $20 to $1,000, with some dedicating $100 a month for a year,” said Claudia Harris, the PHCC-NA’s government relations director.

That money may come in handy as the National Association gears up to plan an attack on utilities.

“Nobody here fears ‘fair’ competition,” said National Association President Mark Giebelhaus in his opening remarks at the forum held in Minneapolis and entitled, “Fighting For Our Future.” “But with the advantages utilities have it is not fair competition.”

The contracting industry is becoming increasingly aware that all those copper wires, fiber optics and gas mains leading from a utility into people’s houses can do much more than just move electrons and molecules. They also have the potential to lead directly to his wallet, for services above and beyond monthly utility bills.

That’s what many utilities are counting on as the industry becomes increasingly deregulated. Federal legislation is already in early draft stages and is a sure bet to be enacted in the next few years. What’s more, state legislatures will get the ball rolling well before Washington does. With no more guarantees of profits from selling energy, the $300-billion-a-year utility industry is looking for other ways to keep the money coming.

But as Giebelhaus pointed out competition’s one thing, unfair competition another. Although the seminar included several discussions on the nature of utility competition, much of the noteworthy events took place at the end of the second day when the participants become an ad-hoc task force and spent the afternoon hammering out proposals to combat utility practices.

The attendees broke up into groups and brainstormed answers to the following questions:

  • What are the goals of a national campaign?
  • What methods should be used to achieve these goals?
  • What are the responsibilities of all three tiers of the PHCC federation in achieving the goals?
  • How do we motivate the membership?
  • Who are our non-member allies?
  • How do we pay for it?

“What we ended up with was a draft, which we still need to fine-tune,” Harris said. After further reviewing the results, National Association staff will present a plan later this month at its convention in Philadelphia.

Of course paramount to organizing such a campaign will be verifying the answer to the last question on how to pay the expense. The National Association Board of Directors has already approved a 10 percent dues increase with 100 percent of this additional revenue dedicated to fighting unfair utility practices. The dues increase will be another important item on the agenda at this month’s national convention.