Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be created in renewable energy manufacturing. Will these employment opportunities be “high-road,” decent-paying union jobs, or will employers take the “low road”–tapping into the desperation of unemployed workers who have already seen too much pain?” The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers is not giving up on bringing organized labor’s opportunities to workers in the sector, despite a recent setback.
In early 2008, some workers at California-based Clipper Windpower’s two-year-old turbine assembly plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, reached out to the IBEW seeking representation. Matthew Fisher, assistant business manager, Cedar Rapids Local 204, says job safety, training, respect on the job and the lack of a seniority system topped the list of worker concerns.
Experienced lathe operators and mechanics with 20 years in industry– many in union shops–were placed on second and third shift, while young workers just out of high school were assigned to daylight hours. Legitimate safety concerns were ignored by supervisors, some of whom had no previous experience in manufacturing.
Despite divisions in the work force, 70 percent of the bargaining unit signed authorization cards.
Brian Heins, lead organizer, learned quickly that IBEW had to proceed carefully in the campaign. Workers reported that the plant was in trouble due to substandard gears and other parts of the turbines that were manufactured elsewhere. According to Bob Baugh, executive director, Industrial Union Council, AFL-CIO:
“Organized labor warned years ago that our nation would pay a deep price in lost research and engineering skills as our industrial base was outsourced.”
IBEW offered to help workers secure their jobs by organizing to gain them more input in company decisions. And Local 204, which includes a bargaining unit at Alliant Energy, offered to support Clipper in seeking orders and expertise from the utility.
Clipper Windpower rejected the IBEW’s offer, launching a stick and carrot counter-offensive against the union. They hired a union-busting lawyer from California to hold captive audience meetings to discourage union support. Then, after workers’ homes faced widespread flooding from the Cedar River last June, the company provided them generators and power washers free of charge. The organizing campaign was broken, but the company’s victory was short-lived. They continued to have trouble turning out windmills that could operate without constant maintenance problems.
A few weeks ago, Clipper Windpower put dozens of workers on the street–including almost all members of the volunteer organizing committee–with no regard for seniority. The downturn in the economy and problems with the product are dark clouds hanging over the remaining workers.
According to Fischer, who is continuing to pursue organizing leads at other “green” companies:
“If we could have worked with them and helped fix their problems, there might have been a better outcome. We know they have some smart workers, but instead of investing in them, they spent their money on a union-buster. They are just one of the wind energy companies producing blades and parts who don’t want any labor unions in this industry.”
Unfortunately, the Cedar Rapids scenario is not an isolated one. In an article in The American Prospect, Philip Mattera, research director of Good Jobs First, says that a similar organizing drive by the Teamsters was broken at a wind-tower plant in Fargo, N.D. Many green energy manufacturers, says Mattera, are receiving healthy subsidies from states and municipalities even while they lobby against reciprocal requirements that they maintain decent working conditions and wages.
“If employers are left to their own devices, some of the new green manufacturing jobs will remain substandard. It is only through more aggressive union organizing–ideally done on a more level playing field–and government intervention in the form of job-quality standards that green jobs can become truly good jobs.”