Unions say RES Americas is not delivering on the promise of good local clean-energy jobs at Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project
By DAVID GROVES
RAINIER, Wash. (Oct. 1, 2019) — In Washington state, organized labor has partnered with environmental groups to pass important legislation, like this year’s 100% clean energy bill. SB 5116 increases the state’s investments in clean renewable energy and energy efficiency, while incentivizing important labor standards like prevailing wage, apprenticeship utilization, preferred hire for women- and minority-owned businesses. The idea is that we can all support clean-energy investments, but they should boost local economies by providing good local jobs.
But frustration is mounting among unions as that promise of “good clean-energy jobs” is being put to the test at a major project in Thurston and Lewis counties.
Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc. (RES Americas) is building a 38-turbine wind project on Skookumchuck Ridge, south of Rainier, Wash. This is exactly the kind of project envisioned by SB 5116. Although that legislation’s rulemaking is not yet complete and its labor provisions are not yet in force, the Skookumchuck Wind Energy Project presents a great opportunity for RES Americas to work with area unions to hire local certified electricians, laborers and other workers in a community that desperately needs good jobs.
That is not happening.
RES Americas refuses to communicate with local unions and is proceeding to hire non-union contractors on an accelerated construction schedule. And a recent report in the (Centralia) Chronicle notes that at the job site, “Washington license plates are few and far between.”
The Skookumchuck project, which will cost more than $200 million, is under way and scheduled to be complete by the year’s end. It is supposed to provide about 300 jobs during construction with six or seven full-time employees for long-term operations. So the boost to the local economy, which was aggressively touted by RES Americas during the permitting phase, will occur mostly during construction.
But there won’t be much of an economic boost if the work is done by non-union contractors paying substandard wages to out-of-state workers.
“We are at our wits’ end,” said International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 76 Business Manager Tim O’Donnell. He says the company has refused to return their calls, much less meet with them.
“The IBEW supports clean energy, but not at the expense of good local jobs performed by well-trained qualified labor,” O’Donnell said. “Due to a loophole in the law, anyone can perform electrical work at this facility because it is considered a utility. This loophole allows for a less scrupulous contractor to import cheap untrained labor from out of state to do the work. Our union is not saying that RES Americas falls into that category, but the IBEW has local well-trained, state-licensed electrical professionals ready to go to work and they refuse to return our calls and emails.”
The BlueGreen Alliance of Washington State — a partnership between labor, environmental, and community organizations — sent a letter to RES Americas back on July 2, when the company was preparing to hire contractors for the Skookumchuck project.
“We strongly encourage open conversations to explore how to ensure union signatory contractors have a fair chance at being selected to build this project,” the letter reads. “We believe this is the future of clean energy projects in Washington and now is the time to demonstrate how successful projects can be when they are built by a highly-trained, certified local workforce and create new opportunities for Washington residents who want to be part of the clean energy economy.”
A month earlier, representatives of IBEW Local 76 joined more than 70 members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) who attended the June 11 shoreline permit hearing for RES Americas’ Skookumchuck bid. At that hearing (pictured below), the unions expressed concerns about RES Americas’ history of bringing workers from out-of-state with pay below area standards and no benefits, citing a similar project the company did in Oregon.
Ultimately, RES Americas got through the permitting process, and now it appears that the unions’ concerns were founded.
When it’s complete, the Skookumchuck project will produce 137 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 100,000 households. That electricity will be sold to Puget Sound Energy, which has plans to resell it through PSE’s Green Direct program to customers that include King County, Washington State, Sound Transit, Starbucks, and City of Issaquah, to name a few.
“I’m not sure that RES leaves us any option but to take our issues directly to the public, or in this case, the customers of PSE’s Green Direct Program,” IBEW’s O’Donnell said.
Currently, the IBEW is working on some informational handouts that they will be passing out in the lobbies or worksites of some of these businesses and public buildings.
“Look, our members pay the taxes and frequent the businesses that are ultimately the end users of the power generated by this project,” O’Donnell said. “We at the IBEW want to support the project, but above all, it has to be done safely and by qualified electricians. The least they can do is meet with us and share how they plan to man this project with local qualified electricians.”