A worker on an offshore wind platform with a turbine in the background.
Vineyard Wind committed to exclusively use union labor during the construction phase of the 800-megawatt wind farm, both onshore and on the water. Credit: Wind Denmark / Creative Commons

Workforce diversity advocates worry a recent commitment by Vineyard Wind to exclusively use union labor to build the project will impair efforts to diversify Massachusetts’ offshore wind workforce because of unions’ historical lack of diversity.

While unions rarely share racial data, it’s generally agreed that a significant majority of building trades union membership in Massachusetts is White. At the same time, most minority-owned contractors in the Boston area are non-union.

So an agreement announced last month between Vineyard Wind and the Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council raised concerns among some, despite the inclusion of diversity targets as part of the deal.

“What Vineyard Wind has done is not just shut but slammed the door tight on any meaningful participation by minority contractors,” said John Cruz, chief executive of Cruz Companies, a third-generation, Black-owned contracting company based in Boston.

Union leaders, however, say they are committed to greater diversity and change — and achieving results. Apprenticeship programs are more diverse than ever, with nearly 30% of participants now people of color, according to one statewide association.

“We’re leading the way,” said Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, an association of construction industry union locals. “It’s the union apprenticeship programs that are bringing more women and people of color into the industry.”

Even before Massachusetts selected Vineyard Wind to build the country’s first commercial-scale offshore wind project, environmental and economic justice activists were pushing the emerging industry to make sure communities of color and other underrepresented populations receive a share of the expected financial benefits. The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center has funded several programs aimed at overcoming obstacles to diversity in the sector. 

In July, Vineyard Wind and the Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council signed a project labor agreement setting terms for some 500 union jobs during the construction phase of the 800-megawatt wind farm. The jobs will pay what the council calls “family-sustaining” wages and include work in the full range of trades involved in the construction, both onshore and on the water.

The deal sets a goal of achieving a workforce that is 10% women, 20% people of color, and 51% residents from the surrounding counties, targets that are “industry-leading,” said Jennifer Cullen, manager of workforce and supply chain development for Vineyard Wind. The agreement also commits $500,000 to the training program Building Pathways, which works to prepare people from low-income and underrepresented communities to apply for and enter building trades apprenticeship programs. 

In addition, the company has committed to creating a working group including all major contractors that will assess the project’s diversity and equity goals, monitor movement toward achieving them, and recommend strategies for improving progress.

“We are really working hard to develop diversity and equity throughout the workforce,” Cullen said. “We need to have very progressive goals on how we’re going to do that.”

Supporters of the labor agreement say they are working to develop a strong pipeline of women and people of color into the unions. However, there is little reason to believe these efforts will bear fruit, said Travis Watson, chair of the Boston Employment Commission, a panel tasked with overseeing employment policies on city-supported construction projects. Union leadership has historically employed strategies both subtle and blatant — from biased union admission testing to explicit racism — to keep people of color out of the ranks, he said. Watson is not convinced that these attitudes have changed, he said.

“For more than 100 years they’ve had the interests of their White brothers at the top of the list,” Watson said. “It just really doesn’t allow folks that aren’t part of the old boys club in.”

Boston’s diversity track record on construction projects supports these concerns, Watson said. A review of the contracting on city-supported construction projects from 2014 to 2019 found that less than one-half of 1% of prime contracts went to Black-owned businesses, even though these companies made up 3.5% of the enterprises available to take on the work. In other cases, contractors on projects in Boston have repeatedly come up short on their commitments to reach hiring goals.

Vineyard Wind is likely to have similar trouble reaching its diversity targets, Cruz said. 

“Somebody is going to go into that job figuring, ‘There’s no penalties here,’” he said. “It’s a farce.”

Others are more optimistic about the labor agreement’s ability to help spur diversity in the offshore wind workforce. 

Often, construction-related unions have been thought of as organizations strictly for White men, acknowledged Tom Juravich, professor of labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. And in years past they may have earned that reputation, he said. 

“But the building trades here in Massachusetts have been working hard to diversify the construction workforce,” he said. “They are joining the 21st century.”

The hiring targets often found in project labor agreements — such as the diversity goals in the Vineyard Wind deal — help hold unions accountable for employing people of color, women, and local residents, Juravich said. Without such measures in place, a contractor could choose to hire a fully White crew or undocumented immigrants, he said.

The working group promised in the agreement is also a hopeful sign, said Susannah Hatch, clean energy coalition director at the Environmental League of Massachusetts, an environmental nonprofit that has been leading the conversation about equity in the offshore wind industry. A similar committee was created by the Massachusetts Gaming Commission as part of the legalization of casino gambling in the state and helped each of the state’s three casinos surpass their diversity targets for construction. The Encore Boston Harbor, for example, aimed for 15.3% of its workers to be people of color and ended up with 25.3%, according to a report issued by the gaming commission.

“We do have a playbook for how to do this in Massachusetts,” Hatch said. “So what we really need to do is rely on those lessons learned.”

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers New England.