A test wind turbine being assembled off the coast of Virginia Beach. | Courtesy Dominion Energy
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 10, 2023
As officials and business leaders are setting their sights on making Maine a hub for the offshore wind industry, workers and environmentalists insist that any green infrastructure produced here should be built through good-paying, union jobs.
They say creating green jobs with strong labor standards are key, not only to warding off climate catastrophe, but also to revitalizing deindustrialized rural and coastal communities in Maine and building an inclusive 21st Century economy.
“We have one opportunity to get this right to protect our environment,” said Jason Shedlock, president of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council and a member of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local 32.
Shedlock spoke at a press conference at the State House on Tuesday hosted by a coalition of workers, environmental groups and immigrant leaders who are supporting a bill by Sen. Chip Curry (D-Waldo), LD 1818, which outlines how future ports used to manufacture wind turbines could be staffed.
The state’s economic and environmental planners have made the development of wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine a top goal. And those ambitions may be coming closer to being realized with recent federal legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 and Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which both set aside funds for states to ramp up the construction of offshore wind. Those federal laws specify various labor standards the states must comply with to be eligible to tap the funds.
“Why the Gulf of Maine? Well, it has some of the strongest and most consistent winds in the world, which makes it a good place for offshore wind,” explained Beth Ahearn of Maine Conservation Voters.
Officials want Maine to be a leader in producing floating wind turbines since the strongest winds are far from shore. Turbines that are fixed to the ocean’s floor typically can only be erected at depths of 200 feet or less, making them less effective at generating power.
The state is currently in the initial stages of developing a test array of 12 floating turbines designed by engineers at the University of Maine.
Unlike fixed-bottom turbines, which are usually assembled at sea, floating turbines are constructed on land and towed into place, where they are then anchored to the sea floor.
This means new ports would have to be developed in Maine to construct the floating turbines. One location currently being considered is in Searsport. Some planners even envision these ports meeting a demand for wind power far outside of the state, where Maine-made turbines could be floated up and down the entire East Coast.
“We must create the rules now to make sure that new industries focus on working people and protect their safety, provide for their future and treat them with the dignity and respect that they deserve,” Curry said during the press conference. “We have an incredible opportunity to create our own renewable energy in Maine and the good jobs that go with it — instead of sending the billions of dollars out of state every year that we spend on fossil fuels.”
Curry’s bill would require the use of project labor agreements in the proposed ports for all on-site turbine construction. PLAs ensure construction is done by union workers making a prevailing wage determined to be a living wage. The bill would additionally require labor peace agreements for the port’s full-time employees. This ensures employers agree to be neutral during union organizing campaigns.
“This bill sets out a vision for what a 21st Century clean energy port ought to look like,” said Francis Eanes of the Maine Labor Climate Council.
Curry’s bill is the top priority this year for the Maine Labor Climate Council, which formed last year to advocate for green jobs. The coalition is made up of 20 unions from across the state representing a variety of different industries and workplaces.
“Our whole reason for being is to come together as the labor movement to tackle the climate crisis at the pace and scale that we know we need to preserve a livable world,” Eanes said.
The coalition is seeking to rectify the fact that many workers of color were shut out of some trade unions in the past, and therefore missed out on many of the middle-class livelihoods created by the labor movement. Curry’s bill would also require ports to develop specific plans for recruiting and employing a diverse workforce that includes Indigenous people, people of color and immigrants.
“Workers are saying ‘yes’ to bringing people into these good union jobs from populations and communities that have been overlooked or left behind,” Eanes said. “Whether that’s New Mainers, people coming out of incarceration, our tribal communities or high school students from Searsport or other rural communities near where this port could go.”
At a public hearing later Tuesday, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce testified in opposition to the bill, and more business opposition is expected as the bill is further considered by lawmakers. Eamonn Dundon, the chamber’s advocacy director, said in written testimony submitted to the legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee that Maine construction businesses could lose out on future contracts because only 5% of contractors here are unionized.
Eanes and Shedlock underscored the labor movement’s role in training and defending the workers that powered the previous industrial epoch, and they said unions could play the same role in building back Maine’s coastal economy.
“Workers are saying ‘yes’ to rebuilding local economies of our coastal and inland communities that have been hollowed out over the past four to five decades,” Eanes said.
“People here know how to build these facilities, and the knowledge they have will be transferred to all the people that we’re going to be able to train moving forward,” Shedlock said. “We know how to train. Unions have been training workers for over 100 years.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.