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

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

The renew¬≠able ener¬≠gy indus¬≠try in the Unit¬≠ed States is boom¬≠ing. Pri¬≠or to the start of the Covid-19¬†pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, which has put mil¬≠lions out of work, over¬†3¬†mil¬≠lion peo¬≠ple worked in clean ener¬≠gy?‚ÄĒ?far more than those who worked in the fos¬≠sil fuel indus¬≠try. And though the decline of fos¬≠sil fuel jobs appears unstop¬≠pable, the unions that rep¬≠re¬≠sent those work¬≠ers are very pro¬≠tec¬≠tive of their mem¬≠bers‚Äô jobs. Sim¬≠i¬≠lar¬≠ly, they‚Äôve also been resis¬≠tant to leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion like the Green New Deal, which would cre¬≠ate more green jobs while also tran¬≠si¬≠tion¬≠ing away from work in extrac¬≠tive indus¬≠tries. Envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal activists believe that green jobs are the future?‚ÄĒ?for both work¬≠ers and our world?‚ÄĒ?but union¬≠iza¬≠tion rates in the renew¬≠able ener¬≠gy indus¬≠try are extreme¬≠ly low. In order to get unions on board with green jobs, the envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal move¬≠ment will have to fight for those jobs to be union. And unions will have to loosen their grip on fos¬≠sil fuels in an effort to embrace¬†renewables.

Fos¬≠sil fuel jobs can pay well (both oil rig and refin¬≠ery work¬≠ers can take home around $100,000 per year), but due to automa¬≠tion and decreased demand, the num¬≠ber of jobs is shrink¬≠ing. And so are the unions that rep¬≠re¬≠sent them. At its peak, the Unit¬≠ed Mine Work¬≠ers of Amer¬≠i¬≠ca boast¬≠ed 800,000 mem¬≠bers, but hun¬≠dreds of thou¬≠sands of work¬≠ers have been laid off in the last few decades. Now UMWA is most¬≠ly a retirees‚Äô orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tion and only orga¬≠nizes a few thou¬≠sand work¬≠ers in the man¬≠u¬≠fac¬≠tur¬≠ing and health care indus¬≠tries, as well as work¬≠ers across the Nava¬≠jo Nation. When a union like UMWA hem¬≠or¬≠rhages mem¬≠bers, many see it as an insu¬≠lar prob¬≠lem that doesn‚Äôt con¬≠cern any¬≠body else?‚ÄĒ?envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal¬≠ists may even cel¬≠e¬≠brate the clo¬≠sure of mines and refiner¬≠ies, poten¬≠tial¬≠ly pay¬≠ing lip ser¬≠vice to lost jobs, with¬≠out doing much to cre¬≠ate new ones.

‚ÄúAn injury to one is an injury to all‚ÄĚ is not just a¬†slo¬≠gan in the labor move¬≠ment because it sounds good, but because it‚Äôs true. When union den¬≠si¬≠ty is low and unions are weak, the jobs that are cre¬≠at¬≠ed are more like¬≠ly to¬†have low pay, lack ben¬≠e¬≠fits, and be unsafe. And because union den¬≠si¬≠ty in this coun¬≠try is already so low (33.6% in the pub¬≠lic sec¬≠tor,¬†6.2% in the pri¬≠vate), every time an employ¬≠er of union labor out¬≠sources or shuts down, it affects not only those new¬≠ly unem¬≠ployed work¬≠ers, but all work¬≠ers, union and not. When oil refiner¬≠ies and oth¬≠er fos¬≠sil fuel employ¬≠ers close their doors, union mem¬≠bers and oth¬≠er work¬≠ers lose their jobs. And while that may feel like a¬†win for envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal¬≠ists, it‚Äôs also a¬†loss for all work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple, even those con¬≠cerned about cli¬≠mate change. Unions are one of the only ways work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple have pow¬≠er in this coun¬≠try?‚ÄĒ?with¬≠out them, there will be very few orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions equipped to fight for the pro¬≠grams and ser¬≠vices we deserve, includ¬≠ing ones that are tasked with fight¬≠ing cli¬≠mate change. These kinds of con¬≠tra¬≠dic¬≠tions have caused ten¬≠sion between both move¬≠ments, and cor¬≠rod¬≠ed trust between them. And while there have been some inroads made in the last few years‚ÄĒinclud¬≠ing unions endors¬≠ing the Green New Deal‚ÄĒthere‚Äôs still a¬†long way to go until unions eschew fos¬≠sil¬†fuels.

Upton Sin¬≠clair once said that ?‚Äúit is dif¬≠fi¬≠cult to get a¬†man to under¬≠stand some¬≠thing when his salary depends upon his not under¬≠stand¬≠ing it.‚ÄĚ When you‚Äôre able to feed your fam¬≠i¬≠ly on wages paid for by fos¬≠sil fuels, it‚Äôs hard to see those same fos¬≠sil fuels as a¬†direct threat to your life. Most of us can under¬≠stand why fos¬≠sil fuel work¬≠ers want to hold onto their jobs. And we can also under¬≠stand¬†why a¬†major¬≠i¬≠ty of Amer¬≠i¬≠cans want to sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant¬≠ly reduce the use of fos¬≠sil fuels.

But between these two con¬≠flict¬≠ing needs is a real oppor¬≠tu¬≠ni¬≠ty: green jobs. The Bureau of Labor Sta¬≠tis¬≠tics pre¬≠dicts that the two fastest grow¬≠ing jobs through 2028 will both be in the renew¬≠able ener¬≠gy sec¬≠tor. While an eco¬≠nom¬≠ic down¬≠turn due to Covid-19 could slow job growth, pre-pan¬≠dem¬≠ic reports showed that solar installers and wind tur¬≠bine tech¬≠ni¬≠cians were set to grow by 63%. None of the 20 jobs pro¬≠ject¬≠ed to grow over 20% in the next eight years are in the fos¬≠sil fuel indus¬≠try. But the open¬≠ing cre¬≠at¬≠ed by the renew¬≠able indus¬≠try for a part¬≠ner¬≠ship between the envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal and labor move¬≠ments is being squan¬≠dered: Unions aren‚Äôt engag¬≠ing in enough new orga¬≠niz¬≠ing, and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal¬≠ists aren‚Äôt encour¬≠ag¬≠ing them. There are, of course, some heart¬≠en¬≠ing exam¬≠ples of unions and greens work¬≠ing togeth¬≠er, like the Revers¬≠ing Inequal¬≠i¬≠ty, Com¬≠bat¬≠ing Cli¬≠mate Change report out of the Work¬≠er Insti¬≠tute at Cor¬≠nell Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty, which con¬≠vened unions and pol¬≠i¬≠cy experts to devel¬≠op rec¬≠om¬≠men¬≠da¬≠tions for new union jobs which would also fight cli¬≠mate change. But most of the green jobs being cre¬≠at¬≠ed are not union: Only 6% of work¬≠ers in both wind pow¬≠er gen¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion and solar pow¬≠er con¬≠cen¬≠trat¬≠ing sys¬≠tem work are union¬≠ized, and 4% of work¬≠ers in pho¬≠to¬≠voltaics, which cre¬≠ate solar cells to con¬≠vert light to electricity.

There are cur¬≠rent¬≠ly near¬≠ly 335,000 solar work¬≠ers in the coun¬≠try, rep¬≠re¬≠sent¬≠ing a huge oppor¬≠tu¬≠ni¬≠ty for the Inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al Broth¬≠er¬≠hood of Elec¬≠tri¬≠cal Work¬≠ers (IBEW), which admits that ?‚Äúa dis¬≠turbing¬≠ly small per¬≠cent¬≠age of the elec¬≠tri¬≠cal work¬≠ers who install res¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial solar pan¬≠els in North Amer¬≠i¬≠ca belong to a union.‚ÄĚ Work¬≠ers on solar farms are more like¬≠ly to be union¬≠ized than rooftop solar installers, who can make as lit¬≠tle as $12 per hour doing a dan¬≠ger¬≠ous job and risk¬≠ing elec¬≠tro¬≠cu¬≠tion or a dead¬≠ly fall.

In These Times¬†spoke with a¬†for¬≠mer solar installer, J., at Solar States, a¬†solar installer and edu¬≠ca¬≠tor in Philadel¬≠phia. Installers there start at $16¬†an hour and are offered paid time off, retire¬≠ment and health care ben¬≠e¬≠fits. Most are Black and brown, and accord¬≠ing to J., there‚Äôs a¬†man¬≠date for¬†50% of installers to live in the city lim¬≠its. Lead installers can go up to $22¬†to $25, but that‚Äôs about the high¬≠est they can make on res¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial jobs. This is why, accord¬≠ing to J., solar installers try to get com¬≠mer¬≠cial work on large build¬≠ings owned by the city, state or busi¬≠ness¬≠es, because it pays more and the jobs are longer‚ÄĒand they often work along¬≠side union¬†members.

On a¬†recent instal¬≠la¬≠tion job on a¬†city-owned build¬≠ing, which trig¬≠gered the pre¬≠vail¬≠ing wage pro¬≠vi¬≠sion, Solar States installers worked next to mem¬≠bers of IBEW Local¬†98, lay¬≠ing the solar pan¬≠els while the union elec¬≠tri¬≠cians wired them. J. (who still works in the indus¬≠try and wants to remain anony¬≠mous) told¬†In These Times¬†that¬†?‚Äúthere‚Äôs a¬†lot of bad blood with the union, but I¬†tried to tell my co-work¬≠ers that the only rea¬≠son we get pre¬≠vail¬≠ing wage is because of them.‚ÄĚ Accord¬≠ing to him, the ten¬≠sion stems from inter¬≠per¬≠son¬≠al issues when they work close¬≠ly togeth¬≠er, and the dif¬≠fer¬≠ences in their wages‚ÄĒIBEW can mem¬≠bers make $72¬†an hour. Relat¬≠ed¬≠ly, the union is pre¬≠dom¬≠i¬≠nate¬≠ly white, and work¬≠ers at Solar States are most¬≠ly peo¬≠ple of col¬≠or, which has also caused ten¬≠sion between the two¬†groups.

Accord¬≠ing to res¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial solar installers, Local 98 also hasn‚Äôt expressed any inter¬≠est in bring¬≠ing these work¬≠ers into their union. (Local 98 didn‚Äôt return a request for com¬≠ment.) J. told In These Times, ?‚ÄúThey don‚Äôt care about new orga¬≠niz¬≠ing. They want to make sure that all the white men that have been in IBEW for¬≠ev¬≠er con¬≠tin¬≠ue to com¬≠mand a high wage. They have nev¬≠er once tried to reach out to us, and we work side by side!‚ÄĚ This may be because there is no cohe¬≠sive man¬≠date from the inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al union. In fact, dif¬≠fer¬≠ent IBEW locals in Cal¬≠i¬≠for¬≠nia have had con¬≠flict¬≠ing opin¬≠ions on green jobs: Local 18 has slammed the Green New Deal, while Local 428 has embraced job oppor¬≠tu¬≠ni¬≠ties in the renew¬≠able sec¬≠tor. And while unions strug¬≠gle inter¬≠nal¬≠ly over these issues, many envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal¬≠ists remain indif¬≠fer¬≠ent or unin¬≠ter¬≠est¬≠ed in solar work¬≠ers‚Äô labor con¬≠di¬≠tions. J. said that ?‚Äúespe¬≠cial¬≠ly cus¬≠tomers who are wealthy, they don‚Äôt real¬≠ly think about it at all. Their ques¬≠tion is not how much installers get paid, but how much is my car¬≠bon foot¬≠print offset.‚ÄĚ

If envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal¬≠ists are tru¬≠ly con¬≠cerned about off¬≠set¬≠ting car¬≠bon foot¬≠prints and grow¬≠ing the renew¬≠able sec¬≠tor, they‚Äôll have to fight for gov¬≠ern¬≠ment inter¬≠ven¬≠tion‚ÄĒand to do so suc¬≠cess¬≠ful¬≠ly, they‚Äôll need unions on their side. In Philadel¬≠phia, a¬†Solar States cus¬≠tomer can pay an aver¬≠age of any¬≠where between $21,000¬†and $26,000¬†for solar instal¬≠la¬≠tion on their home. With¬≠out rebates, tax breaks and oth¬≠er incen¬≠tives, res¬≠i¬≠den¬≠tial solar is finan¬≠cial¬≠ly out of reach for most peo¬≠ple, mak¬≠ing it seem more like a¬†hob¬≠by for the wealthy and less like an impor¬≠tant step to fight cli¬≠mate change. The Green New Deal, which calls for¬†?‚Äúmeet¬≠ing¬†100% of the pow¬≠er demand in the Unit¬≠ed States through clean, renew¬≠able, and zero-emis¬≠sion ener¬≠gy sources,‚ÄĚ could close this access gap. And with more than¬†12.5¬†mil¬≠lion mem¬≠bers, the AFL-CIO (the country‚Äôs largest labor fed¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion) is well poised to get more mod¬≠er¬≠ate Democ¬≠rats on board with the leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion, which, if passed, would cre¬≠ate mil¬≠lions of jobs and expand unions‚Äô ranks. But most unions see the Green New Deal as an attack on union jobs, rather than an oppor¬≠tu¬≠ni¬≠ty to cre¬≠ate more. And yet if renew¬≠able ener¬≠gy got the same kinds of sub¬≠si¬≠dies fos¬≠sil fuel com¬≠pa¬≠nies have, mem¬≠bers of build¬≠ing trades unions would be clam¬≠or¬≠ing to install solar pan¬≠els or wind¬†turbines.

In the mean¬≠time, if there‚Äôs a¬†shared agree¬≠ment between both the envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal move¬≠ment and the labor move¬≠ment that cre¬≠at¬≠ing mil¬≠lions of union jobs is a¬†pri¬≠or¬≠i¬≠ty, both need to actu¬≠al¬≠ly pri¬≠or¬≠i¬≠tize it. Jobs that are good for the envi¬≠ron¬≠ment aren‚Äôt nec¬≠es¬≠sar¬≠i¬≠ly good for work¬≠ers, and jobs that are good for work¬≠ers aren‚Äôt nec¬≠es¬≠sar¬≠i¬≠ly good for the envi¬≠ron¬≠ment. We need jobs that are good for both, and to get there we need unions and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions fight¬≠ing for invest¬≠ment, incen¬≠tives and jobs‚ÄĒtogeth¬≠er. This could involve tying sub¬≠si¬≠dies to a¬†cer¬≠tain per¬≠cent¬≠age of union jobs, or fight¬≠ing for project labor agree¬≠ments at every poten¬≠tial green job site. What¬≠ev¬≠er form it takes, this coali¬≠tion must begin at the premise that a¬†loss of union jobs is detri¬≠men¬≠tal to all work¬≠ing peo¬≠ple in this coun¬≠try‚ÄĒand if we want to fight cli¬≠mate change, the labor move¬≠ment must take the lead, before it‚Äôs too¬†late.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia. She is a frequent contributor to Working In These Times.


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