Are Labor Unions 'Greenmailing' Solar Power Companies?

greenmailing unions photo

Photo via Sustainable NY

Call it the seedy underbelly of green business--reports have been surfacing that solar power companies who start projects without agreeing to hire unionized labor are finding themselves in a suspicious bit of trouble. They're suddenly buried under legal demands to ensure the project won't interfere with dozens of different species, face hostile testimony at public hearings, and are forced to conduct lengthy, barely relevant environmental studies. The companies are facing a seemingly simple choice: hire union, or go greener than humanly possible. They're getting greenmailed. How Greenmailing Works
Now, on the surface, requesting that a company conduct environmental surveys before proceeding with a project seems like a pretty straightforwardly good idea. But we all know there can be too much of a good thing.

Evidently, by overloading companies with unnecessary environmental study requests, the unions can make life miserable for just about any company. Any company, that is, except the ones that go ahead and hire unionized labor. Unions can evidently slow progress on a solar project to a halt, and make going ahead much more expensive--sometimes by up to a staggering 20%.

The New York Times gets a quote that seems to sum up the entire phenomenon:

"These environmental challenges are the unions' major tactic to maintain their share of industrial construction — we call it greenmail," said Kevin Dayton, state government affairs director for the Associated Builders and Contractors of California. "The future of solar energy is jeopardized by these unions holding up construction."

A Case of Greenmailing?
Consider the following cases (from the Times:)
When a company called Ausra filed plans for a big solar power plant in California, it was deluged with demands from a union group that it study the effect on creatures like the short-nosed kangaroo rat and the ferruginous hawk.

Interesting. Let's look at another:
By contrast, when a competitor, BrightSource Energy, filed plans for an even bigger solar plant that would affect the imperiled desert tortoise, the same union group, California Unions for Reliable Energy, raised no complaint. Instead, it urged regulators to approve the project as quickly as possible.

Can anyone guess what the difference between the two was? Yup. BrightSource hired union workers.

Or do the Unions Just Really Care about the Environment?
Unions contend that there's no foul play afoot--they just really care about the environment.

Union leaders acknowledge that they make aggressive use of the environmental laws, but say they do it out of genuine concern for the sustainability of California's power industry, not just as a negotiating tactic.

"We've been tarred and feathered more than once on this issue," said Marc Joseph, a lawyer for California Unions for Reliable Energy. "We don't walk away from environmental issues."

However, others--some key government officials--can't help but see something a little fishy at play:

"This does stress the limits of credibility to some extent," the California energy commissioner, Jeffrey Byron, said at one contentious hearing, "when an attorney representing a labor union is so focused on the potential impact of a solar power plant on birds."

The unions can't be blamed or wanting to get in on the green jobs surge--after all, membership is declining and their ranks are getting older. Getting a solid position on green jobs would be huge in guaranteeing a next generation for the labor unions. But strong-arm tactics--if they are being used--are not only unproductive to perfectly legit companies trying to get projects off the ground, but they're setting back California's clean energy economy in a big way.

In other words, greenmailing has got to stop.

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