Two years ago, Skip Bailey noticed a lot of trucks from a company called Solar Holler driving around Huntington, West Virginia. A union organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Bailey saw an opportunity.
“We want to get in on the solar business,” he said, predicting the industry will grow in his home region, which includes historic coal communities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.
Bailey talked to Solar Holler about unionizing its employees who install photovoltaic panels on homes. IBEW showed the company its local training facility for electricians, and explained the health insurance and pension plans it offers.
“It wasn’t a hard sell in either direction,” said the company’s founder and CEO, Dan Conant. He was already interested in securing union protections for his employees when Bailey contacted him, he said. The move fit with Solar Holler’s dedication to West Virginia’s legacy of energy production and strong union membership.
“It was not just good business, but it just really spoke to our history as a state,” he said.
Conant and Bailey’s efforts paid off in March 2020, when IBEW Local 317 and Solar Holler signed a contract. It’s just a start—Solar Holler only has about 20 unionized employees—but the agreement is an early example of the future Joe Biden is promising. The president frequently pledges to create millions of jobs while transitioning the U.S. to clean energy. Every time he does, he’s quick to add that these will be “good, union jobs that expand the middle class.”
“It’s a great talking point,” said Joe Uehlein, president of the Maryland-based Labor Network for Sustainability, an advocacy group pushing to unionize green jobs. But he added that Biden faces a difficult balancing act to achieve his pledge.
Shrinking the Pay Gap Between Fossil Fuels and Renewables
Caught on one end of the balance are the many Americans who worry clean energy jobs aren’t as secure or high paying as fossil fuel jobs. That perception is largely true, at least for now, said Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts.
The median hourly wage in the solar industry was $24.48 in 2019, according to a report produced by the National Association of State Energy Officials and the Energy Futures Initiative. The wages for the wind and hydropower industries averaged about a dollar or two higher. Meanwhile, the coal industry’s median hourly wage was $28.69, with oil jobs paying about two dollars less and natural gas wages $1.64 higher.
Part of the gap in hourly wages between the renewable energy and fossil fuel industries stems from the fact that oil and gas production rely heavily on higher-paid drilling jobs, while wind and solar production rely more on construction jobs that typically pay less. Hydropower has more manufacturing and utilities jobs that pay well. And, while coal mining does not pay particularly well, the larger coal industry also has higher paid jobs at utilities that burn the fuel.
Another factor is the relative youth of the renewable energy industry, according to Pollin. Fossil fuel jobs didn’t start out paying well or providing stability, he said, but over generations they became good jobs “through organizing, through developing unions.”
Measuring precise rates of unionization in the various energy industries is surprisingly difficult. For example, estimates of union membership among solar workers range from 4 to 10 percent, while estimates of union membership among coal workers range even more widely, from 10 to 20 percent.
In general, comparisons between the fossil fuel and renewable energy industries are complicated, because both encompass a range of jobs with big variations in pay and union membership. Clean energy alone contains multitudes. A 2019 study identified more than 300 occupations in energy production, energy efficiency and environmental management that could be considered part of the clean energy transition, explained Joseph Kane, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Many experts see this wide range of specific occupations as a strength. “There are very good, high-quality jobs in the solar and the solar plus storage industry that can support families and create wealth,” whether they are union jobs or not, said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), a national trade group. Construction managers, maintenance workers, engineers and electricians all receive wages that can sustain families, she said, adding that whether or not these jobs come with union membership depends largely on the state.
New Energy, Old Unionizing Challenges
The renewable energy industry has already weathered some high-profile conflicts over union drives.
Around the same time that IBEW Local 317 and Solar Holler first began talks in West Virginia, IBEW Local 3 was waging a more difficult campaign in New York City. Two solar panel installers with a local energy services company called Bright Power had suffered injuries on the job in late 2018 and early 2019. One of the workers was badly hurt after a heavy wire fell six stories and landed on top of him. The other installer received a shock after working with a live wire that hadn’t been properly switched off.
After these incidents, members of the company’s installation crew decided to unionize and began the process with IBEW. Most of the crew came onboard quickly, said Chris Schroth, a former Bright Power employee and current member of Local 3.
“There was just, like overwhelming support,” he said, explaining that safety concerns were their main motivation. “People understood that they were getting screwed over.”
Several months later, after the Bright Power crew had voted to unionize and started negotiations for a contract with the company, they were all laid off. Schroth attributed the mass lay-off to the union drive, saying that Bright Power had hired a union-busting law firm, held meetings to discourage employees from joining a union and stalled contract negotiations once they began.
Bright Power’s CEO Jeffrey Perlman, however, said the company closed its installation and construction branch due to larger problems. Installing solar panels with an in-house crew was an experiment that only lasted for four years, he said.
“We found that running and scaling construction crews is vastly different from being an energy and water management services company,” Perlman said in a written statement. “As a result, we made the difficult decision to close BPIC [Bright Power Installation & Construction] in 2019 to focus on our core business and expertise.”
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When asked whether the company tried to dissuade employees from unionizing, he said Bright Power held meetings to educate employees about new safety and project management practices, as well as to discuss “both pros and cons about the union so that employees could make an informed decision.”
“We felt terrible that our employees were injured on the job and conducted thorough investigations of the incidents,” Perlman added. “These incidents also contributed to our decision to eventually close BPIC.”
Since closing BPIC, the company has relied on contractors to do solar installation work, including IBEW subcontractors.
One of Bright Power’s specialties is working with affordable housing projects. This fact initially attracted Chris Schroth to the company, he said.
“I want to do meaningful work, and getting solar panels on affordable housing—this is the future, right?” he said. But, “what good is that work if it’s still on the backs of workers? That’s what got us where we are. That’s why there’s a climate crisis.”
After being laid off, the former Bright Power employees who still wanted to join IBEW have become members and found new work with union contractors. Schroth took that route, and has spent the past two years working on HVAC systems and energy efficiency projects, as well as on air filtration systems in the city’s hospitals during the Covid-19 pandemic. He also teaches a course on solar energy to the union’s apprentices.
Growing the Quality Along With the Quantity of Clean Energy Workers
The Biden administration wants the United States to have a zero-carbon power sector by 2035, and hopes this push will create millions of jobs. Transforming the power sector in this way requires building infrastructure, including transmission lines and energy storage facilities, as well as renewable energy plants. All this will create a lot of construction jobs, which people might not necessarily think of as clean energy jobs, explained J. Mijin Cha, a professor of environmental policy at Occidental College.
That construction will need to occur all over the United States. “You can create jobs everywhere,” Cha said, pointing out that people have lost their jobs across the country due to Covid-19. Clean energy jobs that do provide high wages and collective bargaining are a way to address the dual crises of inequality and climate change, she said, as well as confront the additional burden of the pandemic.
Green jobs that are currently lower-paid and less-unionized, such as installing solar panels, could evolve just as fossil fuel and utility jobs once did. But outdated U.S. labor laws pose a big barrier, said the Labor Network for Sustainability’s Uehlein, who is himself a former construction worker and AFL-CIO leader. He said the PRO Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in April would make unionization easier, and urged Biden to get the legislation through the Senate and sign it as his “first and foremost” priority.
In addition to supporting labor organization at private companies, the federal government can more directly create unionized, green jobs. “Building the clean energy economy is going to take public funding,” said Pollin, the University of Massachusetts economist. The government can bankroll clean energy infrastructure through public grants and loans, and use that financial leverage to encourage unionization, he said.
But many disagree that unions are the only way to ensure job quality.
“This is not a binary choice,” said Ross Hopper from SEIA. “There’s lots of room to grow unionization in solar, and there’s lots of opportunity for non-union jobs as well.”
She cautions against government mandates to hire union members, pointing out that some regions of the country, like the Southern states, don’t have very much union labor available. In those places, requirements to hire from unions could result in clean energy projects importing workers from out of state. Instead, she advocates for standards like regional prevailing wages set by the government, which she views as more flexible, but consistent with union goals.
Companies trying to attract non-union workers could, however, take some lessons from unions, said Benjamin Preston, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank. He pointed out that it’s no secret what workers want. The same benefits that entice people to join unions—fair wages, healthcare, time off, upward mobility—can be offered voluntarily by companies.
Even at Solar Holler, Conant pointed out that his business model isn’t the sole option. While West Virginia has a strong union legacy, other regions of the country have cooperatively-owned and employee-owned solar companies. “That really gets at the same spirit,” he said, “where we’re all building this together, and everyone should benefit.”
As the energy transition ramps up, increasing competition among companies for workers could also improve the quality of clean energy jobs. “If we are going to invest trillions of dollars in building out a renewable energy economy, it’s going to be all hands on deck,” Preston said. “We’re going to be trying to find workers anywhere we can.”
That demand will put pressure on companies to offer more attractive jobs than their competitors.
West Virginia’s solar industry, for example, is small but has grown rapidly, even during the pandemic. Conant said working with IBEW has helped him hire more staff to keep up with homeowners’ demand for solar.
“They’re able to send us their best people, we’re able to recruit new members for them—it really is a partnership,” he said.