By Dan Harding
Organized labor is pressing hard to both accelerate and gain a strong foothold in the renewable energy industry. This simultaneous push for green jobs and a green economy has garnered plenty of friends for unions, from environmental groups to consumer advocacy groups to many in the solar industry.
In California, however, this “blue-green alliance” is being strained as Big Solar firms push to get proposed solar plants underway and Unions push for a larger stake in the building and implementation of these plants. On the union side you have California Unions for Reliable Energy (CURE), a consortium of Union leaders working together to increase organized labor’s stake in California’s energy infrastructure, renewable plant or not. At the same time large solar firms, such as Ausra and BrightSource Energy, are pushing hard to get streamlined approval for their solar power plants, often with support from legislators and utilities, themselves trying to implement or achieve state renewable energy standards. In some cases, most notably with Ausra, CURE has thrown a wrench in those plans by delaying a project due, ironically, to environmental concerns.
Why would the unions look to undermine these large solar power arrays?
Ostensibly because Ausra, among others, refused to sign a project labor agreement. Contrarily, when BrightSource Energy, which pledged to hire union contractors, moved to get their desert solar project underway, CURE made no objection whatsoever, despite some local opposition by environmental groups to such power plants. This apparent double standard is enraging many on the business end of the issue. They claim that unions are muscling in on their jobs, essentially blackmailing them into accepting union labor; something Kevin Dayton of the Associated Builders and Contractors of California called “greenmail.” CURE leaders counter that they are able to work with companies such as BrightSource from within on job site environmental issues, whereas they must use all means available with non-union companies like Ausra. Those means have primarily entailed last minute, and very extensive, environmental “data requests” — a significant nuisance for solar companies in a rush. Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club’s director of western renewable programs, said California Unions for Reliable Energy had been effective at extracting concessions that aid the environment.
In the end, there is a lot of finger pointing going on — Unions want high-paying solar and renewable energy jobs now, Big Solar does not want to pay the higher labor costs. This fight in California is important because it may set a precedent for such fights around the country as renewable energy becomes more widespread. California is the front lines of a battle between Union and Business that will spell out the future of the green-collar economy.
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