This article was published by Grist on Oct. 14, 2022.
The Biden administration is gearing up to turn the Gulf of Mexico, long a hub for offshore oil and gas drilling, into a new city of skyscraping offshore wind turbines. Opening up the Gulf to wind development is part of President Joe Biden’s goal to employ “tens of thousands of workers” to establish 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. But in Texas, workers are worried that the new industry will continue the low-wage, unsafe, exploitative conditions that pervade the construction and offshore oil industries there.
For the past year, a coalition of Texas labor unions, along with their allies in Congress and in the environmental movement, have been lobbying the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“We saw the opportunity,” said Bo Delp, the executive director of the Texas Climate Jobs Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the unionization of clean energy jobs. “But we also saw the danger.”
There’s no doubt the offshore wind industry will bring a flood of jobs to communities along the Gulf. There will be jobs manufacturing wind turbines, shipping them out to sea, and installing them; building transmission lines and electrical substations; and operating and maintaining the equipment. But contrary to the White House’s promise of “good-paying, union jobs,” there’s no guarantee they will come with decent wages, benefits, or safety standards — especially in Texas.
“The lack of living wage requirements in the state, the lack of safety requirements, the lack of workers’ comp requirements, all point to an industry that has prioritized their bottom line,” Delp said. “It is unique, and so we believe the policy response must be unique as well.”
The BOEM is expected to issue a notice for the first offshore wind lease sale in the Gulf sometime in the next month, and the announcement will include the lease terms. Previous sales, like the recent auction in the New York Bight, have included terms requiring leaseholders to “make every reasonable effort to enter a project labor agreement.” A project labor agreement is a deal between a developer and local unions, prior to any hiring, that establishes wages, benefits, and other provisions, like health and safety protections, for all workers involved in a project. It does not require the developer to use union labor, but it does level the playing field for union workers to compete with non-union workers for the jobs — and sets higher labor standards for whoever is ultimately hired.
The coalition in Texas wants the BOEM to go further than asking developers to “make every reasonable effort” and instead make project labor agreements a requirement.
The argument is laid out in a letter that the Texas Climate Jobs Project, along with the Texas AFL-CIO and several other unions, sent to the BOEM in February. It cited data from research conducted by the Workers Defense Project, a Texas nonprofit that advocates for protections for workers in the construction industry, including surveys of Texas construction workers about wages and workplace safety. For example, a survey of more than 1,000 workers in the state found that 60 percent had never received basic safety training, and one in five had suffered from a workplace injury that required medical attention. Seventy-eight per cent reported having no health insurance, and 60 per cent were not covered by any workers’ compensation policy. Texas is the only state that does not require workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries.
The Workers Defense Project also found that more than one in five workers experienced wage theft at some point while working in Texas. When paid for their work, more than half received a rate that put them below the federal poverty line, and half of the workers surveyed reported not being paid a higher rate for overtime hours.
Federal data also illustrates the disparity in Texas compared with other states. While Texas has the most construction workers of any state, those workers earn some of the lowest annual mean wages of about $35,000 — just over half of what construction workers in New York make. Texas also has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country — only 3.8 per cent of workers are union members, compared to 22 per cent in New York, and 10 per cent of workers nationwide.
“Unions have been on the decline here for decades,” said Michael Mayer, a 28-year-old Houston-based electrician who belongs to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW. Mayer sees a lot of possibility for the offshore wind industry both to produce low-carbon electricity and to reinvigorate organized labor in Texas. He said he’s seen firsthand how the construction culture there harms workers. Mayer works on big commercial projects, like hospitals and warehouses, and said that IBEW is often the only union represented. He said that other workers, like carpenters and sheetrock hangers, often make less money and face pressure from the contractors who hired them to work fast, even if it means sacrificing safety.
“They are cutting corners, they work at a breakneck pace,” he said. “All that matters to the employer is getting things done as quickly as possible. Who cares if it’s not safe? Who cares if you have to go up on the scissor lift without a harness? Those kinds of employers just want to see profits at the end of the day.”