A Prospect newsletter about big ideas
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Solar Could Become a Model for Sectoral Bargaining
A new deal between the electricians, laborers, and operating engineers aims to set national standards for solar work.
Three major trade unions have negotiated a deal to divvy up work on utility-scale solar plants, and are now shopping it around to developers and contractors. The three-trade agreement, quietly announced earlier this month, has the potential to raise job standards in the solar industry, which has become something of a cautionary tale among labor representatives for how the energy transition can lead to more exploitative jobs.

The agreement could even be an opportunity to prove that sectoral bargaining—where unions organize an entire industry rather than at specific workplaces—can work in some fields, if unions set up a national labor-management framework and convince enough major contractors to participate.

For now, the deal signed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA), and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) remains just a jurisdictional agreement, determining which parts of the job will be handled by electricians, operating engineers, and laborers. It could help reduce friction between unions on which workers will handle tasks such as racking, mounting panels, and welding of solar array structures.

The test of whether such an agreement can gain national traction will come over the next several months, as the unions meet with developers and contractors—known as engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) companies—and ask them to sign on.

Most of the construction industry is highly fragmented and local. The solar industry is an outlier, since the top 20 or so developers and EPCs control much of the national market. If participating unions attract signatories, the new agreement could bring the biggest employers and labor groups to the same bargaining table.

The text of the three-trade agreement has not yet been released or reviewed by the Prospect. But as the unions pitch the deal to EPCs, a source familiar with negotiations said, they plan to emphasize that a skilled union workforce can fight for local projects, including by showing up at community board meetings and overriding local opposition to utility-scale solar farms.

Unions also advertise that an organized and experienced workforce can help ensure compliance with the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), at a time when private developers and their financiers want to ensure that they do not flout a thicket of rules in the new law.

The agreement, IBEW President Kenneth Cooper said in a statement, “will streamline the process of bringing large-scale solar projects onto the grid while ensuring they are done on time and under budget by experienced, skilled trades workers.”
While the jurisdictional deal is a major step, the electricians, laborers, and operating engineers do not represent all of organized construction labor. Several crafts that work in solar installation, including the Carpenters Union, which is not part of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), are conspicuously absent from the agreement. (Multiple representatives of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters did not respond to requests for comment.)

Limiting the agreement to just three unions has practical benefits. Having fewer unions splitting the work can make it easier to coordinate and streamline. And since jurisdictional negotiations are always fraught, it may have been easier to overcome local union politics, and come up with shared standards for national contractors, with just three unions at the table. But unions not included in the agreement could also end up undercutting it.

“It’s a good thing that three of the trades have come together, but there are a lot more than three trades,” said Andrew Elrod, a labor historian who has written about the growth of non-union construction since the 1970s. “The ability for employers to opt out [of the three-trade agreement] is made easier by the availability of trades outside the agreement. To be successful, the workers may need to bring in other trades.”

Elrod compared the structure of the building trades to that of workers in Hollywood, where the power of crafts is diminished by the fact that employees bargain separately. Beyond the big guilds representing writers and screen actors, smaller trades are grouped into IATSE, a labor federation including set designers, costume designers, and art directors.

“Their power is diminished because they bargain separately. Any movements towards coordinated bargaining or, below that, coordinated contract campaigns—any move towards coordination—is good for workers,” Elrod said.

The three-trade agreement does not include California, where a five-trade agreement already covers solar work. In addition to the electricians, laborers, and operating engineers, that agreement also includes carpenters and ironworkers. The business manager of California’s IBEW 1245 put out a statement last week praising the new national agreement, calling it “good for the house of labor and the continued growth of utility-scale solar power in the nation,” and clarifying that it does not apply to projects in California.

The BlueGreen Alliance, a labor-climate coalition, told the Prospect that it supports the deal.

“The three-trade agreement establishes a nationwide framework that will clearly define the roles of each union in the development of utility-scale solar power. The deal will eliminate any room for a race to the bottom, ensure better collaboration between organized labor and solar developers, and allow each craft to bring their respective skills to the worksite,” Executive Director Jason Walsh said in a statement.
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