President Joe Biden’s green energy agenda is in danger of being engulfed in a fight between organized labor and industry over unionization, wages and other workplace issues.
As the renewable energy industry expands, unions and their allies in Congress are determined to unionize more of the jobs or, at the very least, require the payment of union-equivalent wages. But the industry says such moves would cripple some of their operations.
While both sides are eager to push clean energy projects forward and make them a bigger part of the nation’s electrical grid, their disagreements will test Biden’s vow to be both the greenest and the most pro-union president in history.
The clash is playing out in Congress, where Democrats are cranking out bills filled with carrots for developers of zero-emission infrastructure, but with pro-labor strings attached, including wage requirements, job certification and Buy American provisions. Labor groups skeptical of whether green jobs can adequately replace high-paying union jobs in the fossil industry see these provisions as the bare minimum, while solar and wind producers want to see those labor demands dialed down.
"We don’t want to burden the smaller contractors doing great residential work in their communities and that are family-owned and employee-owned businesses," said George Hershman, chair of the board for the Solar Energy Industries Association and president of Swinerton Renewable Energy, a solar company based in San Diego. "We don’t want to hurt them by doing this. We need to make sure we set some reasonable thresholds of where this makes sense."
Unions insist that the renewables industry is well out of its infancy and must now come to the table and engage in collective bargaining like other mature industries.
“It’s pie in the sky bulls— about these green jobs being good middle-class jobs, because they’re not,” said Terry O’Sullivan, General President of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “I’m concerned about union members and union families being left behind … and I think they’ve already been left behind.”
“If we’re transitioning into a new energy economy, as we do are those going to be as good as the jobs that my members are losing?” he added, “And if it’s not, well there’s going to be hell to pay for it. We lost almost 1,000 laborers on Keystone, where’d they go?”
Biden revoked a key permit for the proposed $8 billion Keystone XL pipeline project on his first day in office.
Across the board, government data indicates that being covered by a union pays more. Looking at workers directly in the middle salary range, non-unionized employees made nearly 20 percent less each week in 2020 than unionized workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The renewables workforce is about half as unionized as the power industry overall, according to the 2020 U.S. Energy Employment Report. And while there is a skills gap in those professions, the difference in salary is stark: Wind technicians and solar installers earn on average $30,000 to $40,000 less per year than power plant operators, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Biden rode to office on the back of a coalition that included support from unions as well as green groups, both of whom saw significant policy setbacks during the Trump administration.
Biden has delivered wins to green groups by canceling Keystone and rejoining the Paris Climate accord, but his executive orders also promised "the creation of the well-paying union jobs" necessary to deliver on these goals.
The new president’s commitment to having organized labor at the table was on display Wednesday during an Oval Office meeting with union leaders where he called for good-paying prevailing wage jobs as part of an infrastructure package.
“I want to make it clear I’m a labor guy, and there’s no reason why it’s inconsistent with businesses growing either,” Biden told reporters ahead of the meeting.
Leaders of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters, LIUNA and other top labor groups publicly raved about the meeting, sounding ready to accept Biden’s promises at face value. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka billed the conversation as “the most productive Oval Office meeting in years.”
“As we made clear today,” Trumka said in a statement, “America can only build back better if unions are doing the building. If we make key structural changes to our economy, we can create a new generation of good-paying union jobs.”
Democrats and unions say one way to ensure high-paying jobs as the renewables sector grows is to expand workers’ ability to form unions by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a broad labor rights overhaul backed by Biden. But the bill is unlikely to gain the GOP support it needs to pass the Senate.
Pro-labor provisions have also been appearing in legislation meant to aid the renewables industry.
House Ways and Means Committee Democrats introduced a bill earlier this month, the "GREEN Act," that would extend the investment tax credit, which boosts solar projects and energy storage, and the production tax credit, which subsidizes wind power. Other Senate and House Democrats have their own boosts to green infrastructure waiting in the wings.
But these bills also require companies taking the tax credits to ensure a variety of labor protections, from paying the prevailing wage set by the Department of Labor, which is typically the union-rate in that area, to requiring key certifications. They also include Buy American provisions.
The solar industry wants to avoid applying all of the labor-related rules equally to all companies.
Residential solar installers operate on thinner margins than utility-scale solar developers, and may not have the resources to comply with labor certification provisions or to pay prevailing wages in every part of the company. And solar developers operating in less union-friendly parts of the country may struggle to find local workers with the right kinds of certification, SEIA’s Hershman said.
"California doesn’t look like West Texas and doesn’t look like Alabama," he said. "We need to make sure we have a structure in place that allows us to continue to build the projects that we all want, hire and train the people we want to hire and do it under a structure that in my opinion already exists…. Some of the challenge is that there is a lot of labor stipulations in the Green Act that are going to become challenging because of the risks associated with them."
Wind power operators know they employ fewer union workers than other energy industries, but they see a promising future in which the wind industry’s growth means more jobs for everyone — particularly in offshore wind, where the kinds of high-skill employees unions can provide will be critical. Dutch offshore wind developer Ørsted signed a project labor agreement with the North America’s Building Trades Unions to train union workers for Biden’s planned expansion of offshore wind.
"There are great opportunities to work with labor — this upcoming infrastructure package is a perfect opportunity where we can think creatively what incentives we can co-develop to get a true agenda that I think our industry and labor can get behind," said Heather Zichal, CEO of the American Clean Power Association, which represents the wind industry and some utilities.
Backers of the renewable incentives bills generally expect the legislation to get rolled into one mammoth green stimulus bill that will almost certainly have to pass without Republican support.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the top Senate Energy Committee Republican, and Rep. David McKinley (R-W. Va.), a leading GOP member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, think Biden’s plans would ruin communities in their home states.
“President Biden’s climate agenda would make the people of fossil fuel communities in West Virginia, Wyoming, and elsewhere collateral damage," McKinley said in a statement. "They don’t have realistic alternatives that will allow impacted workers to support their families with a decent wage and preserve the communities where they live.”
Such Republican resistance means using the complex "budget reconciliation" process in the Senate, which in turn means winning the votes of all 50 Senate Democrats. The only way to do that is to build a coalition of organized labor, environmental groups and the renewables industry.
“If done correctly, and by that I mean labor is truly a partner at the table both with the Biden administration and with Congress as these things are being developed from the ground up, then workers will not be left behind,” said Roxanne Brown, the United Steelworkers International Vice President at Large.
Brown said that another piece of the transition away from fossil fuels is getting clean-energy companies to “understand that labor is a partner not a detriment to their business models.”
“Unions are a powerful voice in the policy space, and we could be a great partner to some of these companies who are growing in this country.”
Union officials and renewable industry leaders seem ready to come to the table for discussions to push a bill through Congress that can help them both. An SEIA official said she’d met with the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of some unions and environmental groups, and conversations with the congressional committees are ongoing.
Both Zichal and Sherman said that Biden’s pro-union message has been heard.
"We are all being pushed by the administration," Zichal said.
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