‘Green’ training program sets up front in labor war

There is a new front in the lobbying war between business and labor — “green-collar” workers.

The Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Worker Training Program is expected to train as many as 35,000 workers in green “skill sets” like how to install solar panels, maintain wind turbines, or retrofit buildings with energy-efficient lighting.

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But there is a catch, according to critics. When Congress authorized the $125 million pilot program it only provided for training programs with some labor affiliation.

With presidential candidates promising to spend billions to grow green jobs, a coalition of homebuilders, construction workers, roofers and electricians worry that it sets a dangerous precedent that could give unions a leg up over non-union shops in a cleaner world.

“As Congress moves forward with many proposals to help curb the effect of global warming, lawmakers need to be acutely aware that this effort cannot be done without the help of each and every person, business, industry or organization, regardless of union affiliation,” the Associated General Contractors of America , National Association of Homebuilders , Associated Builders and Contractors , Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing and Independent Electrical Contractors wrote House appropriators in March.

Opponents are marshaling their considerable lobbying and political action committee (PAC) budgets to convince lawmakers to deny appropriations for the program unless all training programs are eligible for the aid.

“All we want is equal access to the money,” said Brewster Bevis of Associated Builders and Contractors.

ABC represents 24,000 construction and construction-related companies, according to its website. It spent $1 million to lobby Congress last year.

Unions dispute the contention that the program blocks the participation of non-union training programs. The training program requires only some consultation with labor groups.

“This is not a very high hurdle,” said Jim Spellane, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers , which is lobbying to protect the distinction.

Spellane said the participation of labor groups would ensure that workers participate in the structure of the training programs.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a champion of the language, said the restriction was appropriate because unions are more experienced in running job-training programs. He said it would also encourage better pay.

“At the end of the day, as we are working toward energy efficiency and sustainability, we also want to make sure that jobs pay people a living wage,” he said.  

“I will do my best to see that it is not changed,” Sanders said.

Not all of the $125 million, allocated as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, would go to support training programs. Some of the funds would be spent to determine which green jobs faced labor shortages. But opponents worry it sets a pro-union precedent.

Brian Worth, a lobbyist at the Independent Electrical Contractors, which represents non-union shops, said participation in the federal green training program could eventually become a requirement for winning federal contracts.

“This could get us more and more cut out of these jobs,” Worth said. “If you have a green training program, that might be a standard for green work on federal buildings.”

Opponents also contend that unions were looking to the program to grow the rolls of union membership at the expense of environmental progress.

Around 86 percent of construction workers, for example, are not affiliated with unions.

Craig Silvertooth of the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing said unions often use their training programs to market themselves to workers.

The green training program could provide another incentive for workers to join.

Opponents of the language have met with Republican leadership staff in both the House and Senate in hopes of blocking any appropriation for the program. Rep. John Kline’s office said the Minnesota Republican was considering offering a bill that removes the restrictions on the grant money.

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), one of the sponsors of the green jobs training program, noted in a statement that the energy bill passed with broad bipartisan support.

But he added that he hoped “interested parties will work together in partnership to maximize training possibilities.”

Each side brings plenty of political power to the debate.

Building trade unions alone have spent nearly $9 million on federal candidates so far this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ninety percent of that money went to Democrats.

AGC and the homebuilders both operate sizable PACs. Contractors have given candidates $356,000 so far this cycle, mostly to Republicans.

Home Builders have donated $977,000 so far, according to Center for Responsive Politics , despite the fact that the group suspended campaign contributions for a time to protest what it saw as an inadequate congressional response to the home mortgage crisis.