Making Green Jobs Good Jobs

Unions organize the clean energy sector.

Kate Aronoff

Workers put solar panels down during an installation May 3, in Washington, D.C. The installation marked the one millionth in the U.S. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Jobs ver­sus the envi­ron­ment — it’s an old dilem­ma that pits unions seek­ing work for their mem­bers against activists ral­ly­ing against projects like the Key­stone XL.

Without strong unions, renewables companies may compete in a race to the bottom. Labor has already learned this lesson the hard way.

An expand­ing renew­able ener­gy sec­tor might pro­vide a way out of this quandary. Solar and wind ener­gy projects can put peo­ple to work with­out imper­il­ing the plan­et. But will these jobs be friend­ly to work­ers, as well as the environment?

The Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW) and the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers (USW) want to ensure that unions have a place in the emerg­ing low-car­bon econ­o­my. After decades of orga­niz­ing work­ers in the fos­sil-fuel-inten­sive min­ing, refin­ery and util­i­ty sec­tors, they see the winds shift­ing. Refiner­ies and coal plants are shut­ting down and tak­ing jobs with them, thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of mar­ket forces and new cli­mate poli­cies enact­ed after years of pub­lic pres­sure. Last year, the num­ber of jobs in oil and gas fell by 18 per­cent, while those in renew­ables increased by 6 percent.

While this is good news for the envi­ron­ment, it could cut into unions’ mem­ber­ship. In response, they’re launch­ing cam­paigns to orga­nize work­ers in the clean ener­gy sec­tor. Data on exist­ing union rep­re­sen­ta­tion in renew­ables is sparse, com­ing almost entire­ly from indus­try sources and vary­ing from state to state. Labor econ­o­mist Car­ol Zabin says that in California’s boom­ing solar mar­ket, util­i­ty-scale wind and solar projects that sell whole­sale elec­tric­i­ty are typ­i­cal­ly built with union labor and offer good wages and ben­e­fits. Rooftop solar-pan­el instal­la­tion in the state, con­verse­ly, tends to be non-union, oper­at­ing in the lais­sez-faire world of res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion. Nation­wide, aver­age wages for util­i­ty-scale solar installers are 20 per­cent high­er than those for installers work­ing on res­i­den­tial projects, accord­ing to the 2014 Nation­al Solar Jobs Census.

Yet rooftop solar is one of the fastest- grow­ing sources of renew­able ener­gy, rep­re­sent­ing an impor­tant oppor­tu­ni­ty for unions. Solar work­ers face the exact same chal­lenges all non-union work­ers face,” says Maria Som­ma, orga­niz­ing direc­tor for the Steelworkers.

Among those are low­er-than-aver­age wages, lit­tle job secu­ri­ty and no col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing pow­er to change either. Over­all, wages in the solar sec­tor are still far below those in the oil and gas indus­try, where years of union involve­ment has secured good wages and ben­e­fits for many groups of work­ers. Accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, the medi­an hourly wage for a solar-pan­el-installer in 2015 was $18, com­pared to $32 for a refin­ery operator.

The Steel­work­ers are cur­rent­ly explor­ing ways to orga­nize renew­ables work­ers around the coun­try. Because the union has yet to take any of its cam­paigns pub­lic, Som­ma declined to give specifics.

But orga­niz­ing efforts in the renew­ables indus­try face three major chal­lenges: resis­tance from solar com­pa­nies and oth­er employ­ers, a geo­graph­i­cal­ly dif­fuse work force, and jobs that are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble to out­sourc­ing and relocation.

An employ­er is an employ­er, whether they’re an envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly employ­er or a pol­luter,” says Som­ma. She says the Steel­work­ers have already seen renew­ables com­pa­nies roll out the kind of intim­i­da­tion stan­dard for the pri­vate sec­tor in response to union orga­niz­ing: cap­tive audi­ence meet­ings, threats of ring and con­tracts with a slew of anti-union consultants.

Employ­ers can also lever­age the threat of out­sourc­ing. Import­ing a mas­sive, mas­sive heavy wind tur­bine from Chi­na is still cheap­er than pro­duc­ing it in the Unit­ed States,” laments Som­ma. And boss­es are none too shy about hold­ing that fact over work­ers’ heads.

Union-busters often feed work­ers the same line. They’ll say: If a union were to come in here, we’re not sure we would be able to main­tain our com­pet­i­tive­ness in the indus­try,’” explains Jer­ry Kurim­s­ki, an inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive with the IBEW, which is also expand­ing orga­niz­ing in the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor. They’re not going to say we’re going to move the place’ — that’s ille­gal — but they’re very care­ful in craft­ing a mes­sage that says it with­out say­ing it.”

Kurim­s­ki built wind farms as an IBEW labor­er before mov­ing to Wash­ing­ton to work with the union’s nation­al staff. He notes that the nature of the work com­pounds the dif­fi­cul­ty of orga­niz­ing: On wind, you have five to 10 work­ers on wind farms that span sev­er­al hun­dred square miles.” This cre­ates bar­ri­ers to build­ing the rela­tion­ships and trust nec­es­sary to win tough fights with bosses.

But with­out strong unions, renew­ables com­pa­nies may com­pete in a race to the bot­tom. Labor has already learned this les­son the hard way: In 2006, the Penn­syl­va­nia governor’s office wooed Span­ish wind-tur­bine man­u­fac­tur­er Game­sa to the state. Attract­ed by state and fed­er­al tax cred­its, the com­pa­ny opened facil­i­ties that put 1,200 USW mem­bers to work statewide, with one fac­to­ry open­ing on the site of a long-closed U.S. Steel mill. But when the tax cred­its expired after sev­en years, so did Gamesa’s inter­est in Penn­syl­va­nia — and the jobs they brought with them. Thanks to the ease of out­sourc­ing, much of Gamesa’s man­u­fac­tur­ing now takes place in Chi­na and Brazil, where labor costs are cheap­er and stan­dards more lax.

Orga­niz­ers say that pub­lic sub­si­dies for wind and solar devel­op­ment should be attached to basic labor require­ments. Between 2008 and 2014, wind and solar projects received as much as $24 bil­lion in tax cred­its and oth­er subsidies.

If they want … pub­lic mon­ey,” says Som­ma, these employ­ers should pro­vide good-pay­ing jobs and those employ­ees need to be able to form a union.”

Despite the chal­lenges, Kurim­s­ki and Som­ma are opti­mistic about mov­ing toward an econ­o­my that is good for both work­ers and the envi­ron­ment. Many world lead­ers have at last begun to take cli­mate change seri­ous­ly. At last year’s Paris cli­mate con­fer­ence, 43 of the most vul­ner­a­ble coun­tries signed a dec­la­ra­tion high­light­ing the neces­si­ty of a 100 per­cent tran­si­tion to renew­able ener­gy by 2050.

The stakes are high, but orga­niz­ers hope to ensure that in the fren­zy of this tran­si­tion, the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor doesn’t treat work­ers like they’re disposable. 

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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