New England Unions Push for Pro-Worker Strategy in Wind Energy Industry

Workers assemble a wind turbine at the New London State Pier on Oct. 31, 2023, for Ørsted and Eversource's South Fork Wind farm off the coast of Montauk. (CT Examiner)


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Labor leaders consider offshore wind energy development the beginning of a green industrial revolution in New England, and they want it to be one with fair wages and high labor standards.

In a joint virtual conference on Friday, union leaders from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts expressed support for coordinated efforts by the governors of the three states to boost industry in the area, and called for development companies to commit to adopting high labor and wage standards, as well as ensuring that permanent workers can form unions.

The governors agreed in October to jointly pursue offshore wind proposals of up to 6 gigawatts. Unions said they sent letters to the four companies expected to bid — Avangrid, Ørsted, Southcoast Wind and Vineyard Offshore — asking them to commit to a suite of high-road labor and equity standards. Companies can submit bids until March 27; states will announce winners on Aug. 7.

“Every climate job should be a good job. We can’t build our way out of the climate crisis with low-paying, exploitative jobs,” Connecticut AFL-CIO President Ed Hawthorne said after the news conference. “That is why labor is proposing a set of shared principles: strong labor standards, transparency, accountability, state investment and workforce development. The offshore wind industry could help spur the build-out of equitable, responsible and worker-centered offshore wind energy. That is why we are united on it.”

The expansion of the offshore wind industry is part of a federal strategy aiming to produce 30 gigawatts of wind energy by 2030, as a way to fight climate change and create thousands of green jobs. Connecticut looks to occupy a key space in this new sector, as it assembles turbines for some of the first offshore wind projects underway at the State Pier in New London. 

Unions acknowledge that it’s difficult to quantify how many jobs the wind industry can create in New England. A study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 2022 estimated that the number of  jobs needed to achieve President Joe Biden’s target of 30 gigawatts by 2030 ranged from 15,000 if just 25% of components were domestically manufactured, to 58,000 if all manufacturing was done in the U.S.

The study forecasts that eight out of 10 jobs will be related to manufacturing and supply chains, an area that remains largely untapped as most components are currently imported from Europe. New York is spearheading this effort, with companies like General Electric already manufacturing turbines and other components in the upstate region, alongside the construction of new facilities.

New England union leaders said they did not consider that a problem, given that reshoring and supply chain creation are regional endeavors. 

“We don’t see this as competition between workers. If New York and New Jersey get the manufacturing jobs, Connecticut would get the turbine work out in the water. Everyone wins,” Rhode Island AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Crowley said. “We see this as part of a regional effort to rebuild manufacturing jobs while we’re cleaning up the economy.”

Crowley highlighted New York’s experience as a model to follow, citing its success in overcoming conflicts caused by inflation and supply chain disruptions. Despite these challenges, New York launched the nation’s first offshore wind farm.

The study projects that the development sectors could contribute between 800 and 3,200 total jobs nationwide — port and staging between 400 and 1,600; marine construction between 500 and 2,100; and operation and maintenance between 600 and 2,300.

Connecticut could secure a portion of these jobs, along with specific specialized manufacturing phases, according to Paul Lavoie, the state’s chief manufacturing officer. In February, Lavoie told CT Examiner that Connecticut boasts one of the most sophisticated supply chains in the area, with expertise in manufacturing helicopters, jet engines and submarines. This, he said, puts the state at an advantage for creating windmill components.

In the same interview, Paul Whitescarver, executive director of the nonprofit Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, noted that wind industry companies often express frustration with navigating the varying state and federal regulations in the U.S. He, therefore, praised the collaborative effort among Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts as a positive step toward streamlining the sector’s development. 

On Friday, union leaders echoed the sentiment, expressing confidence in their ability to collaborate across state lines.

“State governments don’t normally work across borders on major projects like this. Every state focuses on its own business,” Crowley said. “The labor movement, who has much more experience working collaboratively, can help the states navigate the process so that it benefits the entire region.”

Hawthorne emphasized that workers must not only be involved in energy transition discussions, but should also lead them. 

“We are not simply talking about reducing carbon emissions,” he said. “We are imagining a future where renewable energy projects power our homes and our industries and create a new era of opportunities for American workers.”