Worker voice, representation, and power
Research Summary

Unionized Energy Workers Concerned About Employment Frictions with Transitions to Renewable Energy

Enaya SalehSeptember 01, 2023
Source: Energy, Research & Social Science, Volume 88 Title: Necessary, welcome or dreaded? Insights on low-carbon transitions from unionized energy workers in the United States Author(s): Diane M. Sicotte, Kelly A. Joyce, Arielle Hesse Original Publication Date: June 2022 Read Full Research Article

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Biden in 2022, ushered in a new era of aggressive transitions toward clean energy, described by the White House as the most significant action Congress has taken on climate change in the nation’s history. While the Inflation Reduction Act is a central piece of legislation in recent policy discussions, the United States has aimed toward a more energy efficient future for decades. A primary step to achieving this goal is decarbonization, which entails a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

One understudied aspect of low-carbon transitions is the energy workers responsible for enacting them at the ground level. The concerns and needs of US energy workers are crucial in policy discussions surrounding the implementation of green energy solutions. This study aims to bridge gaps in understanding between energy workers, researchers, and policymakers.

The study compiles information from in-depth interviews conducted in 2019 and 2020 with 48 labor union members and leaders in varied occupations from 8 national unions located in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. These interviews provide valuable insights into how energy workers view energy issues that face the US in the context of their own career outlooks.

Key Findings

  • When asked whether the renewable energy sector would provide good jobs, many energy workers expressed apprehension about low-carbon transitions destabilizing their present, relatively secure employment situations. The issue of uncertainty is particularly critical for less-skilled laborers in the construction industry, who face wage exploitation1 and unsafe conditions in the solar energy industry.
  • While some unionized energy workers see renewable energy as anopportunity for new work, others see it as a source of job loss or asa source of low-paying, low-skill, temporary jobs. Some energy workers feel that work in renewables is less secure because once solar arrays and wind turbines are built, only minimal work is required, such as monitoring electricity and washing solar panels.
  • Energy workers in three unions mentioned concerns about the mismatch of skills they would face if fossil fuels were phased out (e.g., work in renewable energy is nonexistent for boilermakers).
  • Researchers point out that workers transitioning to renewable energy face potential disempowerment, as energy industries such as solar and wind power are emerging at a time when the bargaining power of labor is greatly diminished.2
  • Some renewable energy presents safety hazards, such as working at dangerous heights on wind turbines. These hazards could be more acute for non-union energy workers, who may not have any bargaining power to resist unsafe working conditions.
  • Despite the doubts expressed by many energy workers, a good number of interviewees are optimistic about the future of renewable energy in the US, foreseeing new job opportunities, increased investment in some existing fields, and overall prosperity for the energy industry.

Policy and Practice Implications

Responses from energy workers indicate that a blanket policy promoting the development of renewable energy will not solve employment issues for all energy workers. It is possible for policymakers to gain energy workers’ support on decarbonization efforts, but consideration for possible employment frictions must be integrated into transitions. Possible actions involve the following:

  • Including energy workers in decarbonization policy discussions: US energy workers have working knowledge of energy technologies, know energy industries, and understand the opportunities and risks to workers in low-carbon energy transitions. They are also likely to support decarbonization transitions if training, wages, benefits, and location are addressed in negotiations.
  • Strengthening union power in renewable energy industries: Global trade regimes, energy deregulation, and competitive market pressures puts renewable energy industries at risk of becoming non-union, low-wage, and unsafe work. Expanding union rights and coverage in these industries will help ensure that issues of equity, pay, and workplace safety are addressed.
  • Engaging unions in plans to support displaced workers and communities dependent on fossil fuels: Policymakers should plan for the decline of fossil fuel facilities and work with unions to devise and implement income supports, priority job placement, and high-impact retraining for displaced workers.

In comparison to the century-old fossil fuel industry, the renewable energy industry is relatively young but rapidly growing. With the development of newer industries comes the growing pains of sorting old workers into new fields and ensuring that those workers are not disempowered. New workers are helping to build renewable energy industries and must cope with less predictable business models. Both new and displaced workers are faced with starting new jobs where there is little existing framework for bargaining power. This research underscores the importance of putting energy workers at the center of policy discussions and ensuring that worker power is prioritized in low-carbon transitions so that energy workers’ expertise and voice is not diminished.

[1] One union leader viewed the need for unskilled work in the solar energy industry as a situation that generated exploitation, as there is no prevailing wage rate attached to this kind of work.

[2] Declines in union membership have been fueled by government pushback on unions, such as with right-to-work laws.

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