Not-So-Great Green Jobs
Bloomberg Businessweek|April 26 - May 03, 2021 (Double Issue)
Clean energy isn’t a wellspring of the better-paying union jobs Biden has been touting
Saijel Kishan, with Saleha Mohsin, Jennifer Jacobs, and Josh Saul

Working as a construction supervisor one winter, Steven Morones would wake up at 4 a.m. and drive two hours to a Wisconsin cornfield. There, he and the rest of the nonunion crew spent their day assembling a sprawling network of steel I-beams for solar panels to be mounted on. Threading bolts while wearing thick gloves often proved impossible, and so when the temperature dropped as low as -13F, his bare hands would stiffen painfully.

While his body battled the elements, Morones’s mind was beset by a constant worry: that his $25 hourly wage just wasn’t enough to pay his bills. “I was always stressed with the day-to-day,” says the 30-year-old father of four. “I just couldn’t focus on the future.”

Campaigning for the U.S. presidency and now, as his administration steers a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan through Congress, Joe Biden has touted the potential for the solar and wind industries to create the types of jobs the U.S. economy has been losing for decades. “A key plank of our Build Back Better recovery plan is building a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good-paying union jobs,” Biden said in a Jan. 27 speech laying out his energy policy, which targets zero emissions from electricity generation by 2035.

That future is at odds with present-day reality, as Morones and others employed in renewable energy can attest. It’s true, the sector has been minting jobs at a healthy clip: Wind turbine service technicians are No. 1 on a list of the fastest-growing occupations compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and solar installers are in third place. Yet labor groups say companies have either deterred or actively opposed unionization among workers employed in installation and construction, which in the U.S. represent the lion’s share of jobs in renewables. That’s held down wages while depriving workers of coveted health and retirement benefits.

“The new green economy has been heralded as a win-win for workers and the environment, but that’s a big lie to working men and women when wind and solar developers discourage unionization efforts, which we are seeing on most of the largescale utility projects,” says Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (Liuna).

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