TitleKeeping the Lights On: Examining and Re-Imagining NLRA Preemption in a Time of Electric Necessity
Publication TypeJournal Articles
Year of Publication2014
AuthorsScott, I
JournalEnergy Law Journal
Date Published2014

Strikes or lockouts at an electric utility can lead to delayed maintenance in the best case, or blackouts in the worst. In a society dependent on electricity for everything from health care to safe drinking water, a disruption in utility service could cause untold damage. Yet thanks to the expansive doctrine of preemption under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), many public utility commissions (“PUCs”)—the state entities that regulate electric utilities—have concluded that they are prohibited from intervening in labor disputes, even when public safety is threatened. Given the magnitude of harm that could be caused by electric service disruptions, clarification of PUCs’ authority is necessary. This article analyzes the extent to which state agencies retain the power to regulate utilities and protect their citizens, even when their actions may, either directly or indirectly, impact collective bargaining or alter the balance of power between labor and management. The article illustrates the authority of state utility regulators to set service and safety standards, oversee utility staffing, and intervene in labor disputes. In addition, the article proposes a re-thinking of NLRA preemption doctrine as applied to electric utilities, and suggests possible reforms to accommodate the role electricity plays in today’s society.