A disturbingly small percentage of the electrical workers who install residential solar panels in North America belong to a union. Thanks to a new partnership between the IBEW and an innovative West Virginia-based solar firm, that portion is growing.
In June, Huntington, W.Va., Local 317 Business Manager James Gillette announced that a company called Solar Holler had signed the union’s Central Regional Agreement with the National Electrical Contractors Association. This brought into the IBEW fold nearly a dozen workers from the relative newcomer to the solar industry, and that number is expected to go up as the demand for residential solar installations continues to rise.
“Thanks to this agreement, the IBEW won’t just be representing Solar Holler’s workers on the job, but we’ll also be giving them the training they’ll need to keep current in this growing industry,” Gillette said.
The regional agreement, signed by seven IBEW locals and the Central Ohio and West Virginia/Ohio Valley chapters of NECA, governs the IBEW’s smaller inside work projects in most of the Mountain State plus several counties in neighboring Ohio. Among other things, it covers solar work that involves installation of 500 panels or fewer.
“Solar Holler started out as a program for training displaced coal miners,” said Local 317 organizer Skip Bailey. When the company launched in 2013, it was part of a Huntington-based nonprofit coalition known as Coalfield Development, whose mission is to help find meaningful work for miners who are being laid off as demand for domestic coal declines and mines close down.
Since then, Solar Holler has evolved into a thriving business installing residential solar panels throughout West Virginia and parts of Ohio and Kentucky.
The partnership between the IBEW and Solar Holler turned out to be a real meeting of minds, said Bailey, who noted that while the company itself is headquartered across the state in Shepherdstown, it has a Huntington office located near a busy intersection in the city’s Westmoreland neighborhood. The parking lot full of Solar Holler’s colorfully outfitted vehicles easily drew the attention of passing drivers.
“State organizing coordinator Todd Gardner came down and called on them with me,” Bailey said, and the pair soon realized just how closely Solar Holler’s values aligned with the IBEW’s. “Dan really likes the benefits aspect,” he said.
Solar Holler founder and CEO Dan Conant agreed that partnering with the IBEW fits with his company’s mission to support workers, granting them access to such things as paid health care while they work and defined benefit pensions in retirement.
“We believe that health care is a human right, that the people wearing boots are the ones who bring our systems to life, and that our company has a responsibility to honor and care for those who make the magic happen,” Conant said.
He also noted with pride that Solar Holler was the first solar firm in West Virginia to become what’s known as a “benefit corporation,” which he said legally commits his company to keep its workers, its Appalachian communities and the environment on an equal footing with profits.
Gillette and Bailey also invited Conant to spend some time with Local 317 Training Director Tim Akers and tour the local’s Joint Apprentice Training Center.
“Basically, we impressed them with our facility,” Bailey said. The JATC is adjacent to the Local 317 hall and about a five-minute drive from the Solar Holler office.
“Now, they’re getting all the training they need from Local 317,” Bailey said.
Union growth in West Virginia is something to celebrate, Gillette noted, especially after the state’s anti-union Legislature approved a right-to-work measure in 2016. A coalition of unions including the IBEW filed a successful injunction to keep the law from taking effect, arguing that such a regulation unfairly grants nonunion workers all of the benefits of a negotiated agreement without being required to pay for it.
But the state’s Supreme Court settled the matter in April when it voted to uphold the originally passed bill.
“What’s hurt us more than right-to-work is the loss of prevailing wage,” Gillette said. After an 80-year-old state law governing fair wage provisions on public works projects was repealed in that same 2016 legislative session, such jobs have increasingly gone to low-bidding, nonunion contractors, driving skilled workers to prevailing wage states in search of better pay. Perhaps unsurprisingly, problems with public works projects in the West Virginia have been increasing ever since.
For now, the work outlook for Local 317 remains healthy, Gillette said, with the local’s many valuable customers continuing to keep his members busy. Meanwhile, residential solar work is expected to increase, he said, especially as more people begin to realize that federal tax credits for solar installations are heading toward a sunset over the next couple of years.
“Solar Holler signed the regional agreement, then COVID-19 hit and things kind of went into a period of hibernation for a bit,” he said. “But we’ve stayed pretty steady, and we’re hoping things keep rolling.”