This is absolutely what needs to be done. If they can organize these companies, these will be the good jobs of the future.

Jobs versus the environment—it’s an old dilemma that pits unions seeking work for their members against activists rallying against projects like the Keystone XL.

An expanding renewable energy sector might provide a way out of this quandary. Solar and wind energy projects can put people to work without imperiling the planet. But will these jobs be friendly to workers, as well as the environment?

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the United Steelworkers (USW) want to ensure that unions have a place in the emerging low-carbon economy. After decades of organizing workers in the fossil-fuel-intensive mining, refinery and utility sectors, they see the winds shifting. Refineries and coal plants are shutting down and taking jobs with them, thanks to a combination of market forces and new climate policies enacted after years of public pressure. Last year, the number of jobs in oil and gas fell by 18 percent, while those in renewables increased by 6 percent.

While this is good news for the environment, it could cut into unions’ membership. In response, they’re launching campaigns to organize workers in the clean energy sector. Data on existing union representation in renewables is sparse, coming almost entirely from industry sources and varying from state to state. Labor economist Carol Zabin says that in California’s booming solar market, utility-scale wind and solar projects that sell wholesale electricity are typically built with union labor and offer good wages and benefits. Rooftop solar-panel installation in the state, conversely, tends to be non-union, operating in the laissez-faire world of residential construction. Nationwide, average wages for utility-scale solar installers are 20 percent higher than those for installers working on residential projects, according to the 2014 National Solar Jobs Census.
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