Why Every Job in the Renewable Energy Industry Must Be a Union Job

We need millions of union jobs that are good for both workers and the climate.

Mindy Isser

Following a rally in Brooklyn's Cadman Plaza Park, hundreds of union members march across the Brooklyn Bridge in support of IBEW Local 3 on September 18, 2017 in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The renewable energy industry in the United States is booming. Prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has put millions out of work, over 3 million people worked in clean energy — far more than those who worked in the fossil fuel industry. And though the decline of fossil fuel jobs appears unstoppable, the unions that represent those workers are very protective of their members’ jobs. Similarly, they’ve also been resistant to legislation like the Green New Deal, which would create more green jobs while also transitioning away from work in extractive industries. Environmental activists believe that green jobs are the future — for both workers and our world — but unionization rates in the renewable energy industry are extremely low. In order to get unions on board with green jobs, the environmental movement will have to fight for those jobs to be union. And unions will have to loosen their grip on fossil fuels in an effort to embrace renewables.

Fossil fuel jobs can pay well (both oil rig and refinery workers can take home around $100,000 per year), but due to automation and decreased demand, the number of jobs is shrinking. And so are the unions that represent them. At its peak, the United Mine Workers of America boasted 800,000 members, but hundreds of thousands of workers have been laid off in the last few decades. Now UMWA is mostly a retirees’ organization and only organizes a few thousand workers in the manufacturing and health care industries, as well as workers across the Navajo Nation. When a union like UMWA hemorrhages members, many see it as an insular problem that doesn’t concern anybody else — environmentalists may even celebrate the closure of mines and refineries, potentially paying lip service to lost jobs, without doing much to create new ones.

An injury to one is an injury to all” is not just a slogan in the labor movement because it sounds good, but because it’s true. When union density is low and unions are weak, the jobs that are created are more likely to have low pay, lack benefits, and be unsafe. And because union density in this country is already so low (33.6% in the public sector, 6.2% in the private), every time an employer of union labor outsources or shuts down, it affects not only those newly unemployed workers, but all workers, union and not. When oil refineries and other fossil fuel employers close their doors, union members and other workers lose their jobs. And while that may feel like a win for environmentalists, it’s also a loss for all working people, even those concerned about climate change. Unions are one of the only ways working people have power in this country — without them, there will be very few organizations equipped to fight for the programs and services we deserve, including ones that are tasked with fighting climate change. These kinds of contradictions have caused tension between both movements, and corroded trust between them. And while there have been some inroads made in the last few years — including unions endorsing the Green New Deal — there’s still a long way to go until unions eschew fossil fuels.

Upton Sinclair once said that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” When you’re able to feed your family on wages paid for by fossil fuels, it’s hard to see those same fossil fuels as a direct threat to your life. Most of us can understand why fossil fuel workers want to hold onto their jobs. And we can also understand why a majority of Americans want to significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels.

But between these two conflicting needs is a real opportunity: green jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the two fastest growing jobs through 2028 will both be in the renewable energy sector. While an economic downturn due to Covid-19 could slow job growth, pre-pandemic reports showed that solar installers and wind turbine technicians were set to grow by 63%. None of the 20 jobs projected to grow over 20% in the next eight years are in the fossil fuel industry. But the opening created by the renewable industry for a partnership between the environmental and labor movements is being squandered: Unions aren’t engaging in enough new organizing, and environmentalists aren’t encouraging them. There are, of course, some heartening examples of unions and greens working together, like the Reversing Inequality, Combating Climate Change report out of the Worker Institute at Cornell University, which convened unions and policy experts to develop recommendations for new union jobs which would also fight climate change. But most of the green jobs being created are not union: Only 6% of workers in both wind power generation and solar power concentrating system work are unionized, and 4% of workers in photovoltaics, which create solar cells to convert light to electricity.

There are currently nearly 335,000 solar workers in the country, representing a huge opportunity for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which admits that a disturbingly small percentage of the electrical workers who install residential solar panels in North America belong to a union.” Workers on solar farms are more likely to be unionized than rooftop solar installers, who can make as little as $12 per hour doing a dangerous job and risking electrocution or a deadly fall.

In These Times spoke with a former solar installer, J., at Solar States, a solar installer and educator in Philadelphia. Installers there start at $16 an hour and are offered paid time off, retirement and health care benefits. Most are Black and brown, and according to J., there’s a mandate for 50% of installers to live in the city limits. Lead installers can go up to $22 to $25, but that’s about the highest they can make on residential jobs. This is why, according to J., solar installers try to get commercial work on large buildings owned by the city, state or businesses, because it pays more and the jobs are longer — and they often work alongside union members.

On a recent installation job on a city-owned building, which triggered the prevailing wage provision, Solar States installers worked next to members of IBEW Local 98, laying the solar panels while the union electricians wired them. J. (who still works in the industry and wants to remain anonymous) told In These Times that there’s a lot of bad blood with the union, but I tried to tell my co-workers that the only reason we get prevailing wage is because of them.” According to him, the tension stems from interpersonal issues when they work closely together, and the differences in their wages — IBEW can members make $72 an hour. Relatedly, the union is predominately white, and workers at Solar States are mostly people of color, which has also caused tension between the two groups.

According to residential solar installers, Local 98 also hasn’t expressed any interest in bringing these workers into their union. (Local 98 didn’t return a request for comment.) J. told In These Times, They don’t care about new organizing. They want to make sure that all the white men that have been in IBEW forever continue to command a high wage. They have never once tried to reach out to us, and we work side by side!” This may be because there is no cohesive mandate from the international union. In fact, different IBEW locals in California have had conflicting opinions on green jobs: Local 18 has slammed the Green New Deal, while Local 428 has embraced job opportunities in the renewable sector. And while unions struggle internally over these issues, many environmentalists remain indifferent or uninterested in solar workers’ labor conditions. J. said that especially customers who are wealthy, they don’t really think about it at all. Their question is not how much installers get paid, but how much is my carbon footprint offset.”

If environmentalists are truly concerned about offsetting carbon footprints and growing the renewable sector, they’ll have to fight for government intervention — and to do so successfully, they’ll need unions on their side. In Philadelphia, a Solar States customer can pay an average of anywhere between $21,000 and $26,000 for solar installation on their home. Without rebates, tax breaks and other incentives, residential solar is financially out of reach for most people, making it seem more like a hobby for the wealthy and less like an important step to fight climate change. The Green New Deal, which calls for meeting 100% of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources,” could close this access gap. And with more than 12.5 million members, the AFL-CIO (the country’s largest labor federation) is well poised to get more moderate Democrats on board with the legislation, which, if passed, would create millions of jobs and expand unions’ ranks. But most unions see the Green New Deal as an attack on union jobs, rather than an opportunity to create more. And yet if renewable energy got the same kinds of subsidies fossil fuel companies have, members of building trades unions would be clamoring to install solar panels or wind turbines.

In the meantime, if there’s a shared agreement between both the environmental movement and the labor movement that creating millions of union jobs is a priority, both need to actually prioritize it. Jobs that are good for the environment aren’t necessarily good for workers, and jobs that are good for workers aren’t necessarily good for the environment. We need jobs that are good for both, and to get there we need unions and environmental organizations fighting for investment, incentives and jobs — together. This could involve tying subsidies to a certain percentage of union jobs, or fighting for project labor agreements at every potential green job site. Whatever form it takes, this coalition must begin at the premise that a loss of union jobs is detrimental to all working people in this country — and if we want to fight climate change, the labor movement must take the lead, before it’s too late.

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Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.
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