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Why major unions are wary of the move to wind and solar jobs

Biden wants to move quickly toward a clean energy economy. Unions are worried about what it means for workers.

A rotor assembly is raised into position by a crane during the construction of a Suzlon Energy wind turbine at the Edison Mission Group Big Sky wind farm in Ohio, Illinois.
Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

President Joe Biden wants to quickly move the United States toward clean energy jobs in wind and solar. But unions — some of Biden’s strongest allies — are skeptical about the transition to green energy.

Biden and congressional Democrats are poised to introduce a large infrastructure plan that is supposed to deliver on two promises: putting job creation into overdrive, and decarbonizing the economy, with an aggressive goal of powering 100 percent of America’s electricity sector with clean energy by 2035.

To achieve both goals, the administration is betting on a massive push toward wind and solar. Renewables already produced 20 percent of US electricity in 2020, and expanding them further to decarbonize the economy necessarily means phasing out fossil fuels. But even as wind and solar production has increased, wages and the rate of unionized jobs in renewables haven’t kept up with the industries they’d be replacing. In order to make more profits, many companies want to keep their costs low — which includes keeping wages low.

“The fossil fuel industries were unionized in long struggles that were classic labor stories,” said University of Rhode Island labor historian Erik Loomis. “Now, they’re in decline and you have these new industries. But a green capitalist is still a capitalist, and they don’t want a union.”

About 4 percent of solar industry workers and 6 percent of wind workers are unionized, according to the 2020 US Energy and Employment Report. The percentage of unionized workers in natural gas, nuclear, and coal power plants is about double that, around 10 to 12 percent unionized (although still not a huge amount). In transportation, distribution, and storage jobs — which exist largely in the fossil fuel sector — about 17 percent of the jobs are unionized. Still, the solar and wind unionization rates are in line with the low national rate of unionized workers in the private sector, which is about 6.3 percent.

This is one of the big reasons there’s a real hesitancy on the part of many unions and workers to transition from fossil fuel to renewable jobs: They are worried the jobs waiting for them in wind and solar won’t pay as well or have union protections. This has long been a tension point between environmental groups and labor, often exploited by the right wing. Even though alliances between the two are forming, those underlying tensions won’t vanish easily.

Biden’s approach is to attempt to tie good-paying union jobs to a massive green investment, but that could be easier said than done. As unions are demanding a so-called “just transition,” the Biden administration is sending a lot of signals that increasing the number of high-paying union jobs in wind, solar, and other renewables is a high priority. But actually getting there will probably take significant progress in the nation’s labor laws, or at the very least, passing a bill to incentivize developers and companies to pay their workers better wages.

It will also take massive organizing drives from workers themselves to form unions. Reforming labor laws will make it easier to unionize, but it’s incumbent upon workers to start the process.

“In order for us to get where all of us want to go, we have to bring everyone along with us,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told Vox recently. “We can’t just jettison people. That’s the transition we have to strike and I think this administration understands that transition.”

Why many unions are wary of green jobs

During a February Oval Office meeting between Biden and 10 union leaders, a just transition from fossil fuels to renewables dominated the conversation.

The meeting took place about a month after Biden had announced he was shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline. Ending Keystone was a longstanding campaign commitment of Biden’s, celebrated by Native American tribes and key environmental groups as much as it was opposed by congressional Republicans and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Union leaders were prepared for Biden’s decision on Keystone, but they still weren’t happy about it. Approximately 1,000 workers on the natural gas pipeline, most of them union, lost temporary construction jobs (it’s unclear exactly how many of those jobs belonged to American workers, as the company constructing Keystone was Canadian).

“1,000 families suffered for that,” North America’s Building Trades Union president Sean McGarvey told Vox in a recent interview. But McGarvey added that even though union leaders were upset about Biden’s decision, the president was upfront about his decision-making.

“As much as we disliked it, it was refreshing he could look at you square in the eye and tell you his position on that,” McGarvey said. “He knows our feelings, and there’s mutual respect there. Keystone was a little bruising, and the timing we didn’t agree with. But take Keystone away, his first 30 days was a pretty damn good signal.”

The Keystone shutdown, combined with the administration’s move to temporarily pause all oil and gas drilling on public lands, was a forceful initial mission statement, but the White House is also trying to walk a fine line on its energy transition.

“Oil and gas jobs aren’t going anywhere for years to come,” a White House spokesperson told Vox. “Permitting on existing leases for oil and gas drilling is very much happening and there is no pause on that. Simultaneously though — the administration wants to take steps to pivot what we see as jobs of the future. That’s why President Biden has pledged significant investments to create jobs that ensure America leads the clean energy revolution — and they are good-paying, union jobs.”

Unions are watching closely to see what the Biden administration can do to fulfill that promise, specifically boosting the number of unionized, high-paying jobs in the renewable sector.

The 2019 median annual wage for solar photovoltaic installers was $44,890, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the median annual wage for wind turbine service technicians was $52,910. Comparatively, jobs in the fossil fuel power sector pay between $70,310 and $81,460.

Of the 28 utility-scale wind projects currently under construction in the US, just seven projects are union projects and 21 are non-union. And of the 61 utility-scale solar projects under construction, 40 projects are non-union, 21 projects are using contractors that are both union and non-union, and just six reported they’re using all-union labor.

Of course, wages and jobs have a range depending on the type of work being done. Someone laying solar panels on the roof of a home or residential buildings will likely make less than someone constructing an offshore wind turbine.

“Clean energy is a broad sector,” White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy told Vox in a recent interview. “You will find that there are some entry-level positions that are available, like putting solar on top of rooftops, that aren’t as good-paying as others, but we also have in the queue a lot of big projects, like Vineyard Wind.” Vineyard Wind is a Massachusetts offshore wind project that, if completed, would be the first utility-size offshore wind farm — estimated to power over 400,000 homes.

On the issue of union workers, “We’re going to be tackling that issue; President Biden does not think that’s a secondary consideration,” McCarthy told Vox.

There are some bright spots for unions, including the collective bargaining agreement McGarvey’s union recently signed with Danish multinational power company Orsted to construct Vineyard Wind’s offshore turbines.

And in Rhode Island, home to the country’s first commercial offshore wind farm, the renewable sector has already seen a “dramatic increase” in renewable energy jobs, many of them union, said Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO. Rhode Island has seen a 77 percent increase in green energy jobs from 2014 to 2020, totaling about 16,000 jobs. And the state AFL-CIO is partnering with environmental groups to incentivize more green jobs.

Still, many more companies are finding ways to skirt around employing union workers, instead bringing in temporary workers to do the job for less.

In order to make sure the next wave of green jobs are also union jobs, Crowley noted, labor is going to have to fight. And it’s going to need government on its side.

How to increase the number of unionized renewable jobs

There’s a pretty simple reason that the fossil fuel sector is more unionized than the renewable sector: It’s been around for much longer. Added to that, labor protections have been systematically weakened for the last half century, from their height in the 1940s and ’50s.

The process of organizing mineworkers started in the late 1800s and continued for decades. It was a grueling struggle — the union-busting tactics of coal and oil barons weren’t just dragging their feet on better pay, they were literally willing to fight to keep wages low.

“Not only is the work horrible and you have mass death, but these coal companies were literally killing workers; they were murdering organizers,” Loomis, the labor historian, told Vox. In the early 1920s, a yearslong struggle between West Virginia coal workers and their companies turned into a violent battle between an “army of miners 10,000 strong” and private planes organized by coal companies bombarding miners with “bleach and shrapnel bombs,” according to the Smithsonian Magazine.

The result of these hard-fought victories was the height of labor power in the US, ushered in by the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as well as the massive economic mobilization of WWII. By 1953, 35.7 percent of private sector workers belonged to unions, according to a 2016 American Journal of Public Health article. Due to years of anti-labor policies, that number dropped to just 6.3 percent by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Public sector workers in unions, including teachers, police, and firefighters, are over five times that number — around 34.8 percent.

The struggle to unionize workers in the new energy sources of the future hasn’t met opposition as violent as those mineworkers did, but there is still opposition from the new barons of the 21st century. For instance, Tesla CEO Elon Musk — who is frequently contending with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos for the title of richest man on the planet — has taken to Twitter to question why his employees would want a union (in addition to manufacturing electric cars, Tesla is also a leading solar panel manufacturer).

One potential solution being discussed is tying better labor standards to the production and investment tax credits — two types of tax credits often used to fund solar and wind projects. One bill, from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), would create a new 10 percent tax credit for qualifying clean energy projects, including carbon capture, generation, and energy efficiency. Merkley’s tax credit would essentially reward companies for paying their workers more and incentivizing unionized labor, as well as incentivizing American-made clean manufacturing.

Another is just passing better labor laws, which itself could be a steep climb. The PRO Act, which recently passed the House, would be one of the most sweeping changes to US labor laws if enacted. But it faces a steep climb in the Senate, unless the filibuster is reformed or elements of the bill end up in the next budget reconciliation package.

Until then — and even if it passes — it will be up to the labor movement to ensure the Biden administration’s promises for exponential growth in green jobs carry weight.

“If nothing else, their intention is very well placed, and now it’s incumbent on the labor movement to keep their feet to the fire,” Crowley, the Rhode Island labor leader, said.

Correction, March 22, 2021: Renewables produced about 20 percent of US electricity in 2020. An earlier version of this piece misstated the percentage produced by wind and solar.