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Climate

What Happened When Solar Installers in New York Tried to Unionize

Workers at EmPower Solar joined the United Auto Workers. Then management furloughed nearly half of them.

A solar panel installer.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

President Biden’s pitch to get the American public behind the transition to clean energy is that it will bring good-paying, high-quality jobs — union jobs. But so far, that’s been more true in some areas than others.

When Daniel Lozano first got hired at EmPower Solar, a rooftop solar installation company on Long Island last April, he thought he had landed a pretty sweet gig. He was 24, with a background in electrical work and construction, and was attracted by the company’s summer schedule of four tens — four-day work weeks, ten hours per day.

But soon it became clear the job wasn’t as ideal as it seemed. Extreme pressure from management to finish installations as quickly as possible was wearing people down. Workers felt overworked and underpaid. An opaque bonus system and frequent firing and hiring created an atmosphere of anxiety. Vacation requests took months to approve. Lozano grew especially frustrated that his manager kept delaying his scheduled performance review — and therefore his prospects for a raise.

All the while, Lozano watched as the UPS Teamsters and the United Auto Workers were waging historic campaigns to try to increase pay for their workers. Inspired by their success, he began trying to organize at EmPower.

“We don't want to be treated like dogs that are just pushed and pushed and pushed and then let go like used rags,” he told me. “We can make this a good place to work.”

The number of solar workers represented by a union has been creeping up over the last decade, reaching about 10.5% of the workforce in 2022, according to the most recent National Solar Jobs Census. By comparison, about 16% of autoworkers and about 48% of electric power line workers were members of a union that year, according to the Union Membership and Coverage Database, which is built on federal data.

But most union clean energy work is on big commercial projects like utility-scale solar farms, where developers have to pay prevailing wages, use apprentices, or enter into project labor agreements in order to qualify for state and federal subsidies. Union representation is much more unusual in residential work like rooftop solar, where rebates and tax credits typically have no labor requirements.

Residential construction is a fragmented industry, with lots of small businesses that employ only a handful of people. In some ways, EmPower stands out in this field. The company has a staff of more than 100 and offers full benefits like paid time off, health insurance, and a 401k retirement plan. But many of the complaints workers had about EmPower are common in the industry. A 2020 report by the California Workforce Development Board, for example, says that rooftop solar and energy efficiency jobs there “are characterized by low wages” and “lack of career ladders.”

The primary union for solar workers to date has been the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But Lozano thought the group seemed stagnant — its leadership wasn’t out there the way that Shawn Fain, the progressive UAW president, was, fighting for its workers in the national spotlight, Lozano said. So instead, in September, he went to see if his local UAW chapter would represent EmPower workers. They agreed. Next, Lozano began gathering support from his coworkers and soon had enough to schedule an official vote with the National Labor Relations Board.

The company’s leadership did not welcome the organizing effort. In the weeks leading up to the vote, EmPower hired National Labor Relations Advocates, a strategy firm that promises, “within 24 hours of being retained,” to “arm you with the tools you need and bring our experience and 96% success rate in keeping our clients union-free.” According to Lozano and other workers, management began visiting job sites with coffee and donuts and asking about their concerns. They said the company was a family, and that any issues they had would be resolved more slowly with a union, not faster.

The workers weren’t convinced. On December 22, EmPower’s installers and service technicians voted 29 to 16 in favor of unionizing.

One week later, on the Friday before the new year, the company notified 21 workers — including Lozano — that they were being put on unpaid leave, some for more than a year. Michael DiGiuseppe, the vice president of UAW Local 259, accused the company of illegally retaliating against the unionization effort and filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

“One week out, we wanted to find collaborative bargaining priorities, and instead of doing that, they went out and laid off 21 guys,” DiGiuseppe told me.

EmPower said it furloughed the workers because business typically slows down in the winter, and the company took a particularly hard hit in 2023 due to soaring interest rates and inflation. (It is continuing to provide health insurance for those who were furloughed.) But regardless of whether the layoffs were retaliatory, they still violated the National Labor Relations Act, according to DiGiuseppe. Once workers have voted to unionize, an employer is not allowed to make any changes to the covered workers’ terms or conditions without notifying and negotiating with the union, even if the changes are pure business decisions. “At a minimum, they should have communicated with us that they were laying off workers,” DiGiuseppe said.

I spoke with three other field workers from EmPower, in addition to Lozano, who had been with the company for several years, and had also been furloughed. When I asked why they wanted to unionize, the workers, who requested not to be named, echoed many of Lozano’s grievances. They described an atmosphere of pressure to work fast, even in riskier situations, such as when they were installing panels on steeply pitched roofs or working with electrical equipment in the rain. They didn’t like that they were blamed, yelled at, and sometimes docked pay when things broke or went wrong. Many of their complaints were around compensation, including not being paid for travel time or for taking on additional responsibilities. One of the workers, like Lozano, was frustrated by performance review delays that left no clear pathway to a raise. Another described how the company awarded bonuses to workers based on their speed and adherence to safety protocols, but said the scoring system was mysterious and seemed to be inconsistent from job to job.

In general, the workers told me, they liked their jobs at EmPower and wanted to stay there, but were seeking more transparency, accountability, and standardization.

David Schieren, the CEO of EmPower and chairman of the New York State Solar Energy Industry Association, rejected the workers’ characterization of the company. When I asked about the pressure to work quickly, Schieren said this was the nature of running a customer-centric business. “We have one boss,” he told me. “The boss is the consumer. They tell us, do we want to work with this company or not? Are they happy or are they not?”

If workers were uncomfortable with the pace, Schieren went on, then maybe this wasn’t the right job for them. “We are hungry, we do efficient work, we’re productive,” he said. “So that’s what I think we promote here at EmPower. I think that a lot of employees feel that they thrive in that environment. Is everybody right for a highly productive company? I don't know, maybe some people don't want that.”

Schieren said the company had a track record of upward mobility, including promoting 20 field team members to leadership in recent years, and that workers had an average tenure with the company of more than 5 years. He declined to weigh in on whether he supported having a union at his company. When I asked whether he thought unionization threatened the business, he said no.

There is research showing that paying solar workers prevailing wages does not significantly increase the cost of solar. But there’s another calculus to consider in all of this, beyond the economics of any one company or technology. Proponents of unionization — including those in the federal government — say that making sure clean energy jobs are good jobs is essential to building the political will to address the climate crisis.

As we enter the next stage of the transition, where climate solutions like electric vehicles and wind turbines are becoming increasingly politicized and one bad power outage can invite endless litigation over the reliability of renewables, clean energy companies may want workers on their side.

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Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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