Green Workers Alliance Fights for Livable Wages, Safe Working Conditions in Renewable Energy Industry

Interview with Matthew Mayers, executive director with Green Workers Alliance, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

A recent webinar sponsored by the Labor Network for Sustainability included a speaker who’s a solar installer. He spoke about the dangers and low pay in the mostly non-union sector, and explained that he’s a member of Green Workers Alliance, which aims to support workers mostly in the wind and solar energy fields. The group sees itself as an “on-ramp” for educating their members on their rights, where many will choose to join a union.

The group says that workers in green jobs today “are facing job insecurity, low wages and per diems, lack of benefits and poor safety conditions.” The alliance maintains that our nation “can’t have a just transition to a clean economy without more good green jobs. These changes won’t happen without workers leading the way.”

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Matt Mayers, the founder and executive director of Green Workers Alliance. He says of the 100,000 or so workers in the wind and solar industry, 80 to 90 percent are in solar and just 10.5 percent were unionized as of 2022.

MATT MAYERS: In the green job sector more generally, it was mostly not union. And while we want to help people get unions, in the meantime we wanted to help build an organization that would educate people about their rights, do trainings, connect people with unions and other resources.

So, we started it to fill that void. I come out of about 25 years in the labor movement, so I had a lot of experience in that. We started it in the middle of Covid, beginning online and more recently with more in-person work as well. That’s basically what led to our founding – just the need for more power for workers in the sector, and we built the organization from there. We have about 1,500 members, who are mostly in the utility scale wind and solar industry.

MELINDA TUHUS: Okay. And when I heard one of your members talk in a webinar, he was really emphasizing how terrible the working conditions are. The hours are long – he’s a solar installer, so there’s certainly risk involved walking around on roofs, and the pay certainly isn’t like what union pay would be for coal miners or unionized workers like electricians and so on.

Do you see your organization working in collaboration with an actual union to unionize these workers and bring up their living standards,  job protection and so on?

MATT MAYERS: Yeah, you’re exactly right. The folks in the non-union sector see really bad conditions from pay, safety, no job security and always having to find the next gig – they get laid off at the end of a project and have to go online and find the next one and travel to a site. We do feel that the answer to some of the problems here is going to be collaborating with some unions in this field, so we sort of feel like we are an on-ramp for people to be educated about their rights, but in the long run there will have to be growth in unions in this sector, so we work with a number of the unions to help do that. We’re kind of in the beginning stages of that, but it’s been really positive. We’ve had good reaction from unions in the sector, like the Laborers Union, the IBEW and others. And like I said, there’s a real difference in where jobs are unionized in the sector – and they are unionized in some places, particularly in some states like Nevada, California and in New York many of the jobs are union. They have higher pay, better working conditions, benefits, so we want to extend that to the entire industry.

MELINDA TUHUS: What are the demographics of your members or of the people in this sector? It seems like it’s still overwhelmingly male, is that right?

MATT MAYERS: Yeah, I would say it’s still largely male. It’s a good question and there needs to be more research on this sector. But I’d say of our membership, it’s probably 30-40 percent female. We probably are at the higher representation of women than the overall sector, but in the overall sector, in solar at least, we probably have at least 35-30 percent of the workers who are women, and it’s growing. You know, it’s a pretty diverse demographic in terms of racial background. You do have a lot of white male workers like you do in other parts of construction, but you have growing Latino and Latina workforce; you have a big Black workforce as well. It really parallels a lot of the American workforce in terms of its diversity.

And especially on the solar side, people love the work in the sense that they feel very proud of the work; the problem is they don’t necessarily love the working conditions, so that’s what we’re trying to change.

So, the bulk of our membership are not necessarily working on rooftops. They’re working what’s called utility scale wind or solar. So, in the sector they are working on big projects out in a field.

MELINDA TUHUS: I just want to understand a little bit more how your organization connects with unions. Like, do people join the Green Workers Alliance when they’re not in a union, and once they get in a union – assuming the sector will be more unionized going forward – then they wouldn’t be in  your organization anymore? How does that work?

MATT MAYERS: To this point, most of our members are non-union because if they’re in a union that’s where they deal with issues and that’s their representative. We do have some folks who have become union members and have stayed active. There’s no contradiction; they’re not paying dues to us in addition to the union. I don’t think the unions have a problem with it. I think going forward we would like to see a way that folks continue to have some sort of involvement in GWA even after they become union members, but I will say the bulk of our work has been and probably will continue to be in the non-union sector and to help folks get their rights and connect with unions.

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