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This Solar Energy Company Fired Its Construction Crew After They Unionized

Inspired by AOC’s Green New Deal, workers at Bright Power voted to form the first union at a solar power company in New York. On Monday, the company fired them.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Nov 21 2019, 4:44pm

Image: Getty Images / Composition: Jason Koebler

In late April, a group of New York City construction workers, inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s vision for a Green New Deal, voted to form one of the first unions in the solar energy industry. On Monday, their employer Bright Power fired its entire in-house construction crew and announced that those workers, in the midst of negotiations for their first contract, would be replaced with subcontractors.

“We have come to the conclusion that our resources have been spread too thin with so many different kinds of work all being done in-house,” Bright Power CEO Jeffrey Perlman wrote to the company in an email reviewed by Motherboard. “It makes business sense to return to a fully subcontracted solar installation model.”

Bright Power had been working with a full-time solar installation team for four years (prior to that, it relied solely on subcontractors). That team believes they were fired for unionizing. Their union drive was originally covered in Dissent's Belabored podcast.

“This is obviously retaliation for union organizing,” Chris Schroth, one of the fired solar installers from Bright Power, told Motherboard. “The total hypocrisy of their progessive mission as a green energy company is disgusting. They did everything that a big bad union busting company does. This is exactly what a coal company or any other evil company does.”

Despite the renewable energy industry’s reputation as a progressive alternative to extractive industries, the same cannot be said for how many green energy companies treat their workers.

Bright Power’s decision to fire 12 of its workers happened during a period of growth at the company, which installs solar panels and other energy improvements on low-income housing developments in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, including the 1,395 unit Ocean Bay Apartments in Far Rockaway, New York, which suffered severe damages after Hurricane Sandy. This year, Inc. magazine ranked Bright Power one of the 5,000 fastest growing companies in the United States, and last year, Crain’s New York Business placed its CEO on its 40 Under 40 list. On its website, Bright Power says its mission is to “maximiz[e] returns for the real estate industry and the planet.”

"This is exactly what a coal company or any other evil company does.”

Workers at Bright Power say the company’s lack of concern for their safety and well-being points to the need for unions in the burgeoning green energy construction industry. Most of Bright Power’s construction workers come from low-income communities of color, some are formerly incarcerated, many are decades into their careers, and most earn between $16 and $18 an hour, workers say, which puts them in a precarious position that could be strengthened by a union. (New York City’s minimum wage sits at $15 an hour.)

The IBEW union contract Bright Power workers aimed for would mandate at least $56 an hour, the minimum wage paid to electricians working on government projects in New York City and implemented in most union shops.

This year, workers decided to unionize following a couple work accidents and pressure from management to work outside in extreme weather conditions in the winter. Bright Power’s solar panel installers traverse high-rise housing complexes across New York City’s five boroughs with high voltage power equipment.

“We were belittled and ignored. They never told us we had to do anything but there was implied punishment if we didn’t,” an installer at the company told Motherboard. (Motherboard agreed to keep three workers at the company anonymous so they could discuss sensitive events at the company without harming their chance to get future work.) On a snowy day last January, that installer felt pressured to bring his team to drill through ice on the slippery concrete rooftop of a 13-story housing development in the Bronx.

Another worker nearly died after heavy-duty wire fell six stories knocking him from a ladder at a housing development in Washington Heights last year, according to three workers at Bright Power. That worker, who is still recovering and preferred for legal reasons not to publish the details of his injury, told Motherboard, “Sometimes I hurt so much I don’t want to eat. [They] tried to kill me because [they] was trying to be cheap.” Two workers say Bright Power never conducted an internal investigation of the incident.

"While Bright Power does not comment on personnel matters, we can confirm that an employee was injured on a job site in October 2018," Betsey Harbison, a spokesperson for the company said with regards to the incident. "Bright Power adhered to its protocols, which included performing an investigation. The employee received medical care and workers' compensation benefits"

"They are immigrants, they’re poor, they’re working class, they’re people of color, and they’re making poverty wages. The union is their only hope.”

Another installer told Motherboard he lost consciousness when an ungrounded conductor shocked him at a senior housing complex in Gravesend, Brooklyn, while he was working on the midnight shift. “Working on a live system is a complete safety issue,” they said. “But I was informed by my foreman that it was safe and people do it all the time. That was the culture. ‘You got to do this fast, because we got to make money.’”

After workers confronted management demanding that they create a safety plan and received no meaningful response, they approached the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which represents roughly 750,000 electrical workers, about forming a union.

When workers announced their intention to unionize, Bright Power hired Littler Mendelson—the world’s largest labor law firm representing management with ties to the Trump administration—to handle its union negotiations.

Throughout the union campaign, management pulled workers aside at construction sites to discuss why a union was not appropriate for Bright Power, and told them that voting for a union meant “leaving the Bright Power family” —two workers told Motherboard. During one of these meetings, the CEO Perlman told workers that he founded the company to do good in the world and that he did not make that much money—pointing out that did not own a yacht and earned less than his wife, the same two workers told Motherboard.

In April, 75 percent of workers voted ‘yes’ to unionize with Local 3.

“Bright Power says it’s progressive and cares about families,” said Raymond Kitson, who represents Bright Power workers with IBEW Local 3. “Yet none of the company’s profits are passed onto any of the workers. Bright Power has sought to undermine the wages and benefits that are standard in this line of electrical work.”

Under the IBEW contract that Bright Power workers have been negotiating for, workers would have earned $56 an hour, received healthcare, pensions, and 401k plans.

“If you’re an electrician in a city as expensive as New York, being in a union is your only hope to hit the middle class,” Schroth told Motherboard. “These folks are just trying to pay the bills. They are immigrants, they’re poor, they’re working class, they’re people of color, and they’re making poverty wages. The union is their only hope.”

Kitson says while other unionized workers in New York state install solar panels, Bright Power’s union contract would have been the first agreement with a solar provider.

Bright Power’s spokesperson Harbison told Motherboard that the company terminated workers “due to the operational challenges” and that it intends “to focus on the core parts of its business which are professional services related to energy efficiency.”

“This decision in no way is related to the BPIC workers' vote to unionize. We respect all of our employees and their rights,” Harbison said.

One of the fired Bright Power solar installers grew up in public housing in Harlem and completed a semester of college before entering a stewardship program.

Are you organizing your green energy or tech company? We'd love to hear from you. You can reach Lauren at lauren.gurley@vice.com or securely on Signal 201-897-2109.

“Our union was the perfect opportunity to build a movement for organized labor in green energy—in hydro-power, solar, and wind,” they told Motherboard. “If we’re going to fix the planet, we need to do it with good paying jobs. Otherwise it will be pseudo-progressive. Unionizing green energy is the best way to fight systemic poverty and climate change at the same time.”

“This was some visionary stuff. This was the Green New Deal,” Schroth said. “The people who talk about green jobs aren’t actually in the field. They’re not going to fall off a building and lose their life. But we are. The union wasn’t about Bright Power giving us anything. It was about them respecting the voice of their workers.”

Kitson, the IBEW union organizer, confirmed to Motherboard that the company has offered a one-week severance package to workers.

“This is right out of the playbook of any union busting corporation,” said Kitson. “They know these men can’t afford to be out of work. They’ll make them squabble over a couple week’s severance just so they can make it to Christmas.”

Tagged:
environment
unions
solar energy
AOC
Green New Deal