The Electrical Worker online
October 2013

Quality Fuels Memphis Solar Plant
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Made in the U.S.A. It's a rare label in manufacturing these days, especially in the booming solar photovoltaic market, which is overwhelmingly dominated by government-subsidized Chinese companies. Even rarer: a union label.

But a solar panel plant in Memphis is placing conventional wisdom on its head. Sharp Manufacturing Co.'s photovoltaic factory opened in 2003 with fewer than 100 employees. Today the plant work force totals 225 employees. And last spring it produced its 4 millionth panel, helping to make Sharp the sixth largest supplier of solar modules in the world, with more than 70 percent of production exported to foreign countries.

Not only has Sharp managed to hold its own against cheaper, foreign competitors, but management and the IBEW have also created a model labor-management partnership, proving once again that good jobs and strong unions aren't incompatible with productivity.

The relationship between Memphis Local 474 and Sharp management is governed by the Code of Excellence — an agreement by both parties to strive for excellence and cooperation.

"We always stress the need for doing quality work," says Local 474 Business Manager Paul Shaffer Jr. "I think it's real important to keep manufacturing in the United States and one way we can do it is by putting out a quality product."

And it's that commitment to strive for the best that has allowed Sharp to sell its panels worldwide, says Brian Gibson, vice president of sales for Sharp. "That's the difference between us and our competition," he said. "We won't beat them on price but on quality and reliability."

And the market for Sharp's products keeps growing. Improvements to technology, along with federal and state incentives, are making solar an affordable, clean energy option for many businesses and government agencies. Renewable energy, including solar, accounts for 49 percent of added energy capacity last year in the U.S., which is likely to rise throughout 2013.

Sharp expects the U.S. photovoltaic market to grow from 3 gigawatts up to 10 gigawatts by 2016, which is enough capacity to replace over a dozen power plants. Having a "made-in-USA" sticker on its panels, combined with Sharp's continued emphasis on quality production will keep the company strong in the U.S. market.

The factory's success has impressed on employees the importance of the Code of Excellence's emphasis on high-level performance.

"I feel if a panel leaves here, if I touch it, it should be nothing but excellence," says Local 474 member William McGee.

The Code goes both ways however, emphasizing the importance of management's responsibility to ensure good relations with employees and the IBEW.

"We've got an extremely good relationship with the IBEW," said T.C. Jones Jr., vice president of human resources for Sharp. "And it's extremely important to maintain that relationship, because the IBEW will ensure that we maintain a good quality product."

Watch the Sharp solar plant in action on the IBEW's Vimeo channel at



Memphis Local 474 members at the Sharp solar plant are proving that union manufacturing can still make it in America.

Online Tool to Promote IBEW-Made Products

Looking for the IBEW's union label could soon be as easy as clicking your mouse.

A new program under development by the IBEW will make all products made by IBEW union members in the United States and Canada publicly available to customers, contractors and other purchasers of industrial supplies on one easily searchable electronic database.

"Too many people are convinced that union workers don't make anything here at home anymore," said Manufacturing Department Director Randal Middleton. "This tool will make it clear that we do."

A committee of manufacturing branch business managers has been assigned to help get the program off the ground. And the first step is to create a master list of all IBEW-made products.

The group is also working with the Information Technology Department to create an online tool that will allow business managers to constantly update new information and changes to product lines that will keep the list fresh and relevant.

"We want to make it easy to update so people get exact information, all the way down to the model number," says Manufacturing Department International Representative Scott Zillig.

IBEW-represented manufacturers range from multinational behemoths like General Electric, which produces a wide array of consumer and industrial goods, to smaller independent shops that make everything from switches to lighting fixtures.

By giving not only the average consumer the option of going with union-made goods, but signatory contractors and IBEW-represented utilities as well, the program is expected to help give union manufacturing a needed boost.

The existing list of IBEW-made products on is out of date and doesn't provide specific information a customer needs to find goods online or in the store.

Middleton says that creating a system to actively promote union-made goods is part and parcel of the Code of Excellence to promote high-quality manufacturing and build closer relations between workers and employers.

The searchable, online list is expected to be rolled out next spring. Check and the Electrical Worker for future updates.