Last November, Danish renewable energy giant Ørsted reached an agreement with North America’s Building Trades Unions: The company would hire union members for a series of upcoming U.S. projects. NABTU represents 3 million workers in 14 unions, including electrical, bricklaying, cement, masonry, and more—a group historically skeptical of renewable energy because of its potential to disrupt members’ jobs. The three-part deal, which is still being ironed out, will have NABTU members fabricating, erecting, and setting up the power grid for wind projects. It was negotiated by NABTU president Sean McGarvey, who says the deal “pulls the curtain back” on how the renewable industry can turn a profit while paying its builders a fair wage—and, in turn, rally support for the transition to green energy among the workers who will need to build out the infrastructure. This is how it’ll work.
McGarvey says his members are fully capable of pivoting to building green energy components—”We build data centers, nuclear power plants, bridges, hospitals, you name it, we have the skill set”—but will require some training to adapt to new settings. Ørsted will train workers on how to perform tasks 40 to 50 miles out at sea—and ideally provide salaries that reflect the fact that they’ll be on location for 18 to 36 days at a time.
The biggest hurdle for trade workers, McGarvey says, has been the unwillingness of renewable companies to pay wages that match those offered by the fossil fuel industry. By negotiating fair salaries through NABTU, McGarvey hopes Ørsted will show that companies “can pay middle-class sustaining wages with benefits via their collective bargaining agreements and still make money.”
McGarvey acknowledges that one advantage of working with Ørsted is the company’s European roots—where workers often have seats on company boards (at Ørsted, they hold three) and even have partial ownership in the companies they work for through pension investments. “When we have conversations with our counterparts in Europe, they’re aghast at how some of these companies behave in the United States,” McGarvey says. “But Ørsted approached us with this mentality where they not only want to win for their shareholders, they want to win for their employees, the people they do business with, and for the communities in which they operate.”