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.

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.

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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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.