Friday, December 3, 2010

Labor Dispute Stops Solar Power Projects

A bitter dispute over who can work on solar power projects has brought to a halt San Francisco’s efforts to install solar panels at City Hall, Davies Symphony Hall and other prominent buildings.

Electricians, roofers and other unions are battling over “green collar” jobs that are emerging with the city’s aggressive pursuit of clean energy. In June, protests that led to shouting matches between electricians and other laborers stopped work on a five-megawatt solar power plant in the Sunset district.

Officials mediated that dispute, but the city later suspended about $7 million in similar projects after activists threatened more protests.

“We’re going to protest it every time,” said James Richards, leader of Aboriginal Blackmen United, a group that organized the June protests on behalf of workers from Bayview and other low-income neighborhoods. “We deserve the work.”

The dispute underscores the complexities of how jobs will be divided in the green economy. State regulations provide limited direction for employers trying to determine which workers are appropriate for clean-energy projects.

San Francisco embarked on a solar power blitz in recent years, installing panels at San Francisco International Airport, the Moscone Center and elsewhere. Officials estimate that the stalled projects will create 6,700 hours of work — enough to keep 28 people employed for six weeks. Scores of similar projects are planned throughout the city.

But the question of who will do the work remains heated.

The June dispute erupted after a contractor hired people represented by Aboriginal Blackmen United to work alongside union electricians. The electricians receive roughly $75 an hour, compared with $42 an hour for the other laborers.

After the electricians complained, the city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement ruled that workers who install solar panels must be paid electricians wages. The contractor fired the workers represented by Aboriginal Blackmen United, which staged protests.

After city-mediated negotiations, the laborers were rehired at their original wages to sweep and perform other basic duties. Peace held until construction finished in October.

The electricians say they are ready to resume work on other projects, but insist that only they are qualified to perform the work.

“As soon as they’re ready to move, we’re certainly ready to go out and install,” said John O’Rourke, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 6.

City officials say work will remain suspended until the dispute is resolved.

Officials now say a proposed city ordinance forcing contractors to hire a minimum percentage of workers from San Francisco — including its disadvantaged neighborhoods — will help resolve the standoff by placing more Aboriginal Blackmen United members on solar energy job sites.

“If there is a path forward for how to get more locals on job sites, then that would help,” said Barbara Hale, who heads the city’s efforts to install the solar panels.


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