A labor coalition that has made a practice of raising environmental concerns on large-scale renewable energy projects in the California desert, then dropping objections after signing lucrative labor contracts, is being called out by a competing labor faction for its deceptive behavior.
The coalition, the California Unions for Reliable Energy, or CURE, includes unions representing boilermakers, electricians, plumbers and pipefitters. Since 2000, Cure has raised environmental concerns for all 12 renewable energy projects proposed for the Southern California desert, filing over 1,300 requests for information about water and air pollution, and endangered species.
Thus far, developers have signed master contracts with CURE’s union affiliate, the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, to supply union workers on eight power plants, including one geothermal plant and seven solar installations. Once the labor contracts were signed, CURE dropped its environmental objections on those projects.
Some of the contracts contain a provision that the developer pay monies into a CURE trust that promotes the industry group, in one case nearly $400,000.
The rival union group, representing trades including carpenters, operating engineers and laborers, say that CURE’s tactics are slowing down the approval of new projects and substantially boosting the projects’ cost. They worry that eventually, developers will take the projects elsewhere, costing area labor groups thousands of future jobs.
According to a feature story in the Los Angeles Times:
CURE and the council operate out of the same Sacramento office and have the same top executive, Robert Balgenorth.
State Energy Commissioner Jeffrey Byron said that CURE is entitled to participate in power plant licensing proceedings and that it sometimes provides useful research and expert witnesses. But he’s skeptical of the coalition’s motives.
“It does strain credibility when you have an organization called CURE that is concerned with the desert tortoise and wildlife habitat and turns around and disappears when a project labor agreement is signed. Then it takes credit for improvements to the project to justify its existence,” he said.
CURE countered that it was motivated by a desire to protect the environment. Sophisticated labor groups, said CURE’s lawyer, Marc D. Joseph, understand that any complex project must meet stringent environmental standards.
“This is not the 1960s,” Joseph said. “People in the building trades are not stupid. They understand that their economic future depends on developing projects in an environmentally sustainable way.”
CURE’s intervention in power plant licensing hearings is aimed at making sure that construction workers and residents of nearby communities are protected from environmental dangers, Balgenorth said. A subsequent project labor agreement is “a tool to make sure labor standards are set in place and the owners have what they need,” he said.
In an industry publication last September, Balgenorth denounced the carpenters union’s leaders as being “anti-worker” and involved in a “transparent attempt to snatch more than the carpenters’ fair share of good jobs away from the building trades workers.”
The dispute between Cure and the rival union alliance has escalated over the last year as renewable energy projects have been singled out as a way to get unemployed trade workers back on the job, and meet the growing demand for clean power. However, the persistent threat that CURE will stand in the way of the projects have many parties up in arms.
Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters, said at an Energy Commission hearing about solar plant licensing last year that CURE is “here for one reason, which is to extract or shoehorn this company, this industry, into a project labor agreement that is not only costly and restrictive but inappropriate under the circumstances.”
“To use the environmental issues to extract this is really shameful,” he said.
Information from: Los Angeles Times