by Andrew Piotrowski
One notion frequently thrown around to describe our country is that of “freedom”. Ask any citizen with even the slightest sense of nationalism what makes this the greatest country on the face of the Earth, and he/she will inevitably reply “because you have the freedom to do what you want”. Private industry is considered the hallmark of freedom, and attempts to reform the private industry are met with fierce rhetoric about the slippery slope towards socialism and an infringement on our constitutional rights. The equate state-run enterprises with long lines, lack of understanding/caring, and decreased quality in the finished good or service. However, my experiences this past Tuesday in ECIRMAC have taught me a little different idea of what freedom means to some.
As I arrived to take my hour-long volunteer shift at the center, I was met by two Guatamalan men, who needed to speak with me about a dispute they were having with Ameren, one of the largest corporate-owned utilities companies in the nation. The occurring situation was that one gentleman’s roommate was moving out, and he was going to take his name off of the utilities payments, as it was he who had been previously paying for them. This gentleman had the simple request of changing the name on the billing statement to his own name, so that he could continue making the payments himself. After talking to a representative from Ameren, he claims that they told him to send in a copy of official documentation which he had in the form of an ID card from the Guatamalan consulate, as well as a Guatamalan passport. He was assured by the representative that these forms of ID would be sufficient. After repeated attempts to fax over copies of the documents, as requested, he was finally able to get a response from the company. Unfortunately for him, the representative who handled his fax information told him that these were not valid forms of ID. To me, not allowing someone with a job and a home to purchase electricity from a non-governmental company seems absurd. However, the message sent from corporate Ameren is this: In the Land of the Free, we choose who can turn their lights and water on and who cannot. Because there is no other competition for utilities companies here in Champaign-Urbana, this Guatamalan man, who has resided here for the past five years, is now facing the possibility of losing electric power and water in his household because the company would rather discriminate against its potential clients than take its money.
I attempted to contact Ameren personally on behalf of this gentleman, but to no avail. Another problem with being the ONLY utilities company is that everyone must call you for their utilities problems. For the entire hour I was at the center, the phone lines were experiencing too high of a call volume for us to even talk to someone. As I left the center that day, I could not help but feel depressed at the fact that this gentlemen may get his power shut off if nobody is paying, and that if he eventually gives up in his attempt to battle a major utilities conglomerate over the ability to provide himself with electricity and water, he may eventually lose this battle forever.