As Maine comes close to finalizing its roadmap for the development of offshore wind, a coalition of labor and environmental groups is asking the state to strengthen its commitment to supporting union jobs in the burgeoning industry.
A group of 12 environmental and labor organizations has sent a letter to the Maine Offshore Wind Roadmap Advisory Committee asking that the final plan, expected by early February, incorporate explicit language recommending the use of project labor agreements and labor peace agreements as the offshore wind sector develops in Maine. Many of the same advocates are supporting a bill, announced by Democratic state Sen. Mark Lawrence last month, that would require union labor agreements on offshore wind projects.
“Organized labor needs to be a crucial part of this investment,” said Kelt Wilska, energy justice manager for Maine Conservation Voters. “And we need to make sure working families, both coastal and inland, benefit from this.”
As states from New England down to North Carolina work on their own plans for implementing offshore wind projects, Maine is expected to be a major player in the growing industry. With strong, consistent winds, the Gulf of Maine is widely considered to be one of the most promising areas for offshore wind development.
Maine convened its Offshore Wind Roadmap Advisory Committee in July 2021 with the mission of creating an economic development plan for the fast-emerging industry. The panel — which includes 25 members representing state and municipal governments, private business, community and environmental nonprofits, and organized labor — released its draft plan in early December.
The document outlines strategies for investing in infrastructure and workforce development; reducing costs and increasing resilience through renewable power; advancing Maine-based innovation; and protecting and supporting the seafood industry, coastal communities and the ocean ecosystem. Labor and environmental groups have praised much of the plan, particularly its focus on comprehensive planning, workforce and supply chain investment, and environmental monitoring and mitigation.
Little on labor
The draft roadmap, however, mentions unions and organized labor just three times, and not with any detail — an omission that some find problematic. It is essential that offshore wind jobs offer fair wages and benefits, as well as industry training and plans for worker safety, said Francis Eanes, executive director of the Maine Labor Climate Council, one of the groups that signed on to the letter to the roadmap committee.
“All those things are most effectively accomplished when workers can come together with each other in the form of a union,” he said. “It’s not rocket science here.”
Specifically, the letter’s signatories would like to see the roadmap call for the use of project labor agreements and labor peace agreements. Project labor agreements are pre-hire collective bargaining agreements that set the terms and conditions for the temporary employment of workers on a given construction project. A labor peace agreement is an arrangement in which an employer agrees to remain neutral should its permanent workers choose to form or join a union.
Robust union participation is the best way to make sure the economic benefits of the offshore wind industry are shared with working families, supporters argue. And, they say, project labor and labor peace agreements are the best way to ensure union labor is used in the construction, operation, maintenance, and supply of offshore wind. But the current roadmap language doesn’t reflect this urgency, said Jason Shedlock, regional organizer with the Laborers’ International Union and president of the Maine State Building and Construction Trades Council.
Representatives from the state’s energy office declined to comment as the roadmap development process is still ongoing. However, documents distributed to participants in a January 18 meeting of the committee noted that, “This is an all hands on deck moment — labor will be key, as will other actors — we don’t want to send signals of people being excluded.” The materials also indicated that the committee would possibly add to the roadmap a description of project labor agreements as an example of the kind of arrangement the state is looking for, but without going so far as to recommend or mandate these agreements.
“There is more wiggle room than we’d like,” Shedlock said.
The roadmap is already informing offshore wind legislation: Lawrence’s bill was heavily influenced by the recommendations in the draft document. The bill goes further than the roadmap on labor as it requires project labor agreements, but has a long way to go to become law. Advocates want the roadmap to call for similarly strong measures.
Using non-union contractors would prevent Maine residents from taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by offshore wind, Shedlock said. To meet the needs of such large projects, smaller, non-union companies would inevitably need to bring in temporary, out-of-state workers — workers who would then head home, contributing little to Maine’s long-term economic development, he said. Unions, on the other hand, have the resources and structures in place to recruit and train a substantial in-state workforce, he said.
“These are the partnerships we have in place,” Shedlock said. “This is the capacity that we bring.”
Formal union agreements have emerged as a significant feature of offshore wind projects. In Massachusetts, in 2021, the Vineyard Wind project signed a project labor agreement committing to use exclusively union labor. In May 2022, major offshore wind developer Ørsted announced an agreement to use American union labor to build all of its U.S. wind projects.
It would be a mistake for Maine not to follow this precedent, especially given the pressing nature of the climate crisis, Shedlock said.
“For Maine to think that they can do it differently than everyone else is only going to waste time,” he said.
Though these commitments have been widely hailed, not everyone is sure they are good for equity and diversity. When Vineyard Wind announced its project labor agreement, for example, some workforce diversity advocates declared the commitment would work against the goals of nurturing diversity and inclusion in the industry. Organized labor has a history of racial exclusion, they noted, and the majority of small construction businesses owned by people of color are non-union and would therefore be shut out of opportunities.
Labor advocates in Maine acknowledge this history, but say they are working hard to build opportunities for a diverse range of Mainers. The Maine Labor Climate Council has partnered with the Maine AFL-CIO to create a pre-apprenticeship program that will actively seek out participants from underrepresented groups. The program will help recruit and prepare potential workers for taking on an apprenticeship in the trades by teaching them soft skills and familiarizing them with unions. To help potential students overcome barriers to participation, stipends will be available to help pay for child care or transportation.
“It’s a model that is a really successful approach for bringing people currently and historically underrepresented into the union apprenticeship programs that we know lead to high-quality, stable careers,” Eanes said.
Advocates will now have to wait to see what language is included in the final version of the roadmap. Regardless of what emerges, however, they are committed to pushing the state to commit to organized labor in the long run.
“We really have one opportunity to get this right,” Shedlock said. “If we don’t employ local labor with good, family-sustaining jobs, that’s an unforced error right from the beginning.”