Part one of an ongoing series. Click here for part two.
One evening in September 2018, Lucas Franco parked on the shoulder of a dirt road in the Minnesota cornfields. He examined the passing cars, especially their license plates.
The trucks and SUVs were rolling off the construction site of a wind farm called Stoneray. Upon spying each plate, Franco noted its origin state and entered it into a spreadsheet on his laptop. Utah, Florida, South Carolina, Texas.
Franco was not a police officer or a private investigator, but a Ph.D. candidate in political science trying to solve a mystery. His employer, the Minnesota-North Dakota chapter of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, wanted to know where these workers were coming from.
For several years, wind farms like Stoneray had been rising in southern Minnesota, with each energy project promising to create hundreds of jobs. But developers rarely called the Laborers’ Local 563 union hall in Minneapolis. Instead, the Laborers’ and the state’s other construction unions suspected that wind companies were importing workers from other states and denying the income to Minnesotans.
"We kept asking questions" of the developers about their workforce, said Kevin Pranis, 49, the local’s marketing manager and Franco’s boss. "But they would just fob us off."
The data on Franco’s laptop changed that. It would, in fact, form the basis of the most successful labor actions in the short history of American renewable energy.
This Minnesota episode is relevant now because of the union sympathies of the new U.S. president, Joe Biden. Biden launched his campaign two years ago in a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh. Last week, he posted a video implicitly cheering on a unionization effort at an Amazon.com Inc. warehouse in Alabama, which is being closely watched to see whether a new, union-loving president could revive a labor movement long in decline.
Biden has made no secret of his intention to bring this rare brand of presidential labor activism to clean energy.
The very first paragraph of his $400 billion clean energy push insists that a key goal is to "provide workers with the choice to join a union and bargain collectively with their employers."
What is not yet clear is how that message will play with the diverse enterprises under the zero-carbon-energy tent. Captains of the clean energy industry don’t seem eager to bargain with workers. Unionized workers aren’t well-positioned to negotiate for higher pay.
Unions represent less of the U.S. workforce than at any time in the past six decades. They are weakest in many of the states that voted in large numbers for Donald Trump last fall. To build support for an energy plan that places more wind farms in Midwest cornfields, analysts say, Biden must prove that clean energy is not just a power source for the urban elite, but a creator of living-wage jobs in rural America.
Meanwhile, top executives at clean energy companies have been trained by a cutthroat market to cut costs wherever they can. Most are young and fast-growing businesses that have so far avoided existential struggles with organized labor. They are not exactly rolling out the welcome mat.
"I don’t think that unions are the answer to creating more jobs," said Mike Hall, the CEO of Borrego, a solar and storage project developer in San Diego that currently has 33 job openings, none of them under a union umbrella.
His argument — as old as the battle between capital and labor — is that it is the company that knows best how to grow, how to hire and fire, and how to create lots and lots of jobs. Unions, he said, advocate "for the benefit of their members, advocate for policies that make it hard to increase the size of the labor pool."
Yet it seems certain under the Biden administration that, whether clean energy businesses like it or not, a new chair is being reserved for unions.
Throughout American history, labor disruption hasn’t come from the White House but from angry workers. The way that the Minnesota drama played out might suggest what the energy industry has coming.
‘You’re not welcome here’
Franco’s license plate tally from the Stoneray project, owned by EDF Renewables Inc., surprised even him. Of the 61 personal vehicles that left the wind farm site that day, only 15% had Minnesota plates. The largest contingent, 21%, came from Texas.
"I was shocked by how low it was, actually. Then disappointed, and then ultimately sad," said Franco, a lean and athletic 35-year-old. But he did feel a certain satisfaction. "There was transparency around what had been a black box," he said.
Franco and his supervisor Pranis knew, with the wind industry blowing them off, that they needed to force change through the Minnesota Legislature or the Public Utilities Commission.
So the Laborers’ union launched a campaign alongside other unions to persuade Minnesota politicians to require wind farms to disclose how much (or little) local labor they were hiring. This was self-serving. The Laborers knew that pressing wind developers to hire local left little choice but to hire unionized workers. In sparsely populated areas like southern Minnesota, unions have access to the widest labor pool.
The campaign had two prongs. One aimed at the policy set. Franco authored a study that linked the portion of local labor on wind farms to how much money was plowed into local economies.
Using a jobs data model from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Franco concluded that, for the seven Minnesota wind power projects that were then in the pipeline, a 10% local workforce would generate $41 million in local economic activity. Upping that to 70% would create nearly $89 million in economic activity, or $48 million more.
"Unlike local workers, who typically pay local property taxes, send children to local schools, spend their earnings at local establishments, and donate to local churches and non-profits, non-local workers on wind projects take the wages earned and the skills developed on wind projects back home when they leave," said the report.
The second prong of the campaign was a classic labor move: masses of union members in their construction vests and blaze-orange T-shirts showing up at PUC hearings.
And show up they did. Pranis estimates that 150 to 200 members attended PUC events in the ensuing months at the main office in St. Paul and at satellite hearings in the hinterlands.
One Laborer, Jean Baudhuin, 57, recalled the testimony she gave at a PUC event at a high school gym.
"They don’t have the same pride in their work, they don’t have the same ownership," she said of the out-of-state workers. To the companies that hired them, she said: "Don’t say you want to build this wind turbine here and not hire local. You’re not welcome here."
Out of nowhere
The campaign to hire local caught wind companies by surprise. "Until that point, the wind developers hadn’t thought about it," said Peder Mewis, a regional policy manager for the Clean Grid Alliance, a nonprofit policy advocate for wind developers, including giants like NextEra Energy Inc., National Grid PLC and EDF Renewables.
Of the things a renewable energy company doesn’t like about hiring union, the workers’ salaries and benefits tower above them all.
The Laborers’ union is, as the name implies, made up of laborers. Laborers are the people who support other building trades by erecting the scaffolding, shoveling out the concrete, holding up stop signs for traffic. A journeyman Laborer makes $32 an hour, not including a benefits package that adds $19 to that. The base pay is more than twice the $15 minimum wage proposed by progressive Democrats in Congress. Other, higher-skill unions make more.
Union labor also forces prescriptions on who does what. On a union wind project, members of the International Union of Operating Engineers run the bulldozers and cranes; members of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers, or Ironworkers for short, make the foundation’s rebar skeleton and erect the tower; members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers run the electrical cables. All of these unions were part of the Laborers’ campaign.
A Minnesota wind project typically lasts six months, from the spring thaw until the autumn freeze. The cost of overtime pay, paid at time and a half, skyrockets as the developer races to meet federal tax credit deadlines.
The energy companies have good reason to keep wages low. Wind developers are in a penny-for-penny battle to make their projects prevail against other competing sources of electricity generation, especially natural gas. In turn, the construction firms get into fierce bidding wars. The cheapest bottom line wins.
"The renewable energy industry is hypercompetitive, and the margins get pushed down and down," Mewis said. "How much more expensive is it going to be if we’re required to use union labor, and how does that affect our ability to compete?
"We don’t want to push projects to other states," he said.
‘Where are the jobs?’
The unions’ drive to get the Minnesota Legislature to force transparency in the wind industry’s labor practices hasn’t succeeded. But the Public Utilities Commission was a different story.
The commission had processes to make sure everyone’s needs were met on a wind project, from how it would affect the view to whether it would kill prairie grass. But nothing asked developers to articulate specifics about local jobs.
That caught the ear of Katie Sieben, who arrived on the commission in 2017 and is now its chair.
Unlike most commission members, Sieben is a politician. Daughter of a state legislator and herself a former state representative and senator, she was appointed to the commission by then-Gov. Mark Dayton, to whom she once served as aide, and promoted to chair in 2019 by Gov. Tim Walz. All three are Democrats.
On hearing the Laborers’ request, she recalled asking her staff, "What do you mean you could tell us how many birds can be killed by this wind farm, but we can’t tell how many workers will construct it?"
In December 2018, three months after Franco made his observation, the PUC for the first time asked a wind developer to disclose the number of local jobs it was creating. This, however, did not mean that the PUC was on board. No precedent had been set.
Then another wind farm, the Bitter Root project, which started in 2017, arrived before the regulators for a permit. It was sponsored by Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of a British multinational.
Both the PUC and the Laborers’ union were surprised when RES refused to disclose its jobs mix.
The union turned up the heat. It requested that the project be subject to a contested case, which turns on interpretation of fact — in this case, the fact of whether it offered local jobs. Instead of a straightforward permit, Bitter Root would now endure something like a court trial, overseen by an administrative law judge, with evidence, testimony and cross-examination.
At the hearing where the PUC was to determine whether to lodge a contested case, the Laborers’ union showed up in force. Sixty workers stood for the TV cameras by banners proclaiming, "Hey RES, where are the jobs?"
"We think [Bitter Root] is nothing more than a speculative development to enrich a foreign corporation at the expense of Minnesota workers," Pranis said to the PUC. The issue got a lot of ink in local papers.
The commission unanimously voted to send Bitter Root to a contested hearing. Months later, the Bitter Root project collapsed. RES Americas sold the project to another developer, Avangrid Inc., which is moving toward building the wind farm at another site.
RES Americas says the sale had nothing to do with labor.
"We want communities that host our projects to realize economic and environmental benefits as soon as possible and sometimes this involves selling the project to another entity who has the best probability of completing the project," the company said in a statement provided for this article. "The labor questions associated with the Bitter Root project were not central to our reasons for selling the project."
But the Laborers’ and other Minnesota unions saw it as a clear victory. Only 15 months after Franco had spied his out-of-state license plates, the orange-shirted workers had caused a project to collapse over a lack of local labor.
The union’s friends and foes
The varied complexion of the clean energy industry means that unions will have an easy time getting a seat at some tables and a really hard time at others.
"Clean energy" is a sprawling industry, a sign of how central it is becoming to the economy. Its vast array of activities include affixing rooftop solar panels to and blowing insulation into homes, making electric cars, synthesizing photovoltaic solar modules and lithium-ion batteries, assembling giant solar arrays and thickets of wind turbines, and stringing transmission lines, not to mention hydroelectric dams and by some definitions nuclear power plants. Each has its own particular relationship to unions.
Most supportive of and engaged with unions are companies that maintain the electric grid and the budding field of offshore wind power.
Workers at utilities — not just electric but water and gas — are 20% unionized, among the highest of any industry, according to 2020 figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Offshore wind is developing a brotherhood with unions, though the industry itself is only just beginning.
A dozen or more projects are at the blueprint stage along the East Coast. Building the parts for titanic-sized turbines that can withstand years of salt spray, moving them to sea in specialized vessels, attaching them to the ocean floor with hefty steel shafts and snaking high-voltage cables back to shore will involve a combination of skills that scarcely exist in the U.S. labor force.
Add to that the fact that much of the development is happening in union-friendly states like New Jersey and Connecticut, and the leading offshore wind developers are turning to union labor en masse. Rystad Energy, a research firm, recently estimated that offshore wind would grow almost threefold to 868,000 jobs by the end of the decade.
"We can bring the unions and the suppliers and the service providers together," said David Hardy, the CEO of Ørsted North America.
In November, Ørsted signed a memorandum of understanding with North America’s Building Trades Unions on "a national agreement designed to transition U.S. union construction workers into the offshore wind industry." In February, another developer, Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind, inked a similar agreement with six labor unions in New Jersey.
On the other end of the spectrum, of real concern to a union man like Biden, is solar.
Solar electricity generation, whether on home rooftops or at big solar farms, is one of the least unionized industries anywhere. It is the fastest growing source of energy in America.
An annual report on labor trends in the energy industry puts the percentage of union jobs in the solar industry at just over 4%. Wind is on par with the national average, at 6%. In an unfortunate twist for Biden’s labor hopes, the industries that will shrink in a clean energy world are also among the most union-friendly: coal (10%) and natural gas (11%).
If offshore wind is drawing in unions because of its complexity, solar is the opposite.
The man-hours of building a solar farm are mostly straightforward: scraping the site flat, erecting steel posts and bolting on panels. It’s not the kind of high-skilled work that moves developers to pay top wages. Home solar systems are more complex, but those are the province of smaller building contractors that have sturdily resisted efforts to unionize.
The median wage for a starting licensed solar installer is about $20 an hour, according to a solar jobs report, far below what a Laborer earns at $32.
Biden has also pinned hopes on domestic manufacturing. In solar, that’s not a union scenario either. Today, most solar equipment comes from Asia. America’s modest onshore manufacturing is mostly done in nonunion shops by arms of Korean, Japanese and Chinese conglomerates.
In a sign of future conflict, the solar industry doesn’t see its lack of union strength as a weakness.
"California doesn’t look like West Texas and doesn’t look like Alabama," George Hershman, the board chair of the Solar Energy Industries Association and the president of Swinerton Renewable Energy, a California solar developer, told Politico. "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."
Further complicating Biden’s desire for unions is that more than half of the overall union workforce is concentrated in just seven states: California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
But Biden’s emphasis on union labor gives a platform to sentiments like those of David Foster, a founder of the BlueGreen Alliance, which advocates for environmental groups and labor. Foster sees the union push in light of the racial justice protests that rocked the country last summer.
"The renewable energy industry, if it wants to be on the right side of social history, really should come around to the right side of this," he said.
A new relationship
The collapse of RES Americas’ Bitter Root project served to make the regulator’s stance clear. It also changed the power balance in Minnesota between the wind industry and unions.
"All was focused on the least cost," Mewis said, speaking of the wind developers. "There’s no way that’s the scenario now."
The reporting of local labor still isn’t required for a wind permit, but doing so is "almost routine," according to Sieben, the chair of the PUC.
As a result, local union labor, once on the margins of the wind industry, is flourishing. The 15% local labor that Franco first read in the license plates is now regularly at 60% or higher. Higher wages didn’t cause developers to flee the state. The common wisdom used to be that union wages made a project unaffordable. But now that everyone is doing it, it’s just the cost of doing business.
In fact, the PUC had more than a gigawatt of wind projects under review in 2020, more than any year since the Laborers’ movement began.
The Laborers’ victory over RES Americas was a "watershed moment" for the construction unions, Mewis said, for one reason. "It showed that organized labor in Minnesota had the political power to be able to alter the outcome of a permit."
The Laborers union wasn’t done, however. Last September, it summoned what Pranis called "one of our biggest volunteer efforts ever" to support Biden for president.
The Minnesota-North Dakota chapter’s political action committee donated $39,000 to his campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, part of a larger effort that saw unions give $27.5 million. Money wasn’t all. The Laborers’ union assembled a 60-person phone bank that made 13,000 get-out-the-vote calls to union members.
Biden won Minnesota by more than 300,000 votes. And in January, the Laborers’ union got the biggest chair of all.
That was when Biden named Marty Walsh as his nominee for Labor secretary. Walsh, the mayor of Boston, got his start as a Laborer and the head of the Boston local. Pranis declared himself "over the moon." If confirmed, Walsh will be the first card-carrying union member to head the Labor Department since the 1970s.
While making its case for local jobs, Pranis has consistently connected dots between union labor and Biden’s energy agenda. Having a good-paying job in clean energy, or knowing someone who does, he said, influences a person’s opinion of that wind turbine spinning above the cornfields. It influences a person’s opinion of the politician who wants to put it there.
"For that kind of impact we’re going to have, we’re going have to have a lot of buy-in," Pranis said. "A lot of people are going to be seeing a wind turbine from their house before we’re done."
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the use of union labor by developer Avangrid Inc. The Bitter Root project is still in the permitting phase, and Avangrid has not hired workers for it.