Union membership is low in the growing wind energy industry once construction wraps up. But with the help of the IBEW, Jeremy Warren and fellow wind technicians at Invenergy’s Grand Ridge Energy Center in northeastern Illinois are looking to add to those figures.
With the support of his colleagues, Warren contacted the Sixth District office last June and inquired about union representation. By year’s end, even as the COVID-19 pandemic forced their meetings to be held virtually and voting to be conducted by mail, the bargaining unit voted 10-4 to attain IBEW representation. They will become members of Springfield, Ill., Local 51 when agreement is reached on a first contract.
“We had talked about it in years past, but it wasn’t regarded as a real possibility,” said Warren, who now is part of the contract negotiation committee. “It came to the point where we didn’t feel as valued and we felt like our careers should be a little more legitimate. I think it helps make the entire industry more legitimate.”
It’s not a large organizing win in terms of numbers, but it gives the IBEW a foothold in an industry expected to grow for the foreseeable future, said Joe DiMichele, the Sixth District’s lead professional and industrial organizer for Illinois.
Only 6% of U.S. wind energy employees are unionized, according to a report released last year by the National Association of State Energy Officials and the Energy Futures Initiative. Grand Ridge Center is considered a jewel among Chicago-based Invenergy’s properties, DiMichele said. The company has been lauded in industry media for how the facility has helped it become a leader in both energy production and storage.
“Invenergy is a large player in renewable energy,” DiMichele said. “They have a lot of wind farms and gas-fired plants. These issues raised at Grand Ridge are important across the industry. All Invenergy workers deserve representation and a voice at the table along with safety and dignity.”
Organizing during the pandemic is a challenge because it removes most of the valuable face-to-face contact with potential new members, DiMichele said. But the technicians at Grand Ridge had a good idea of what they wanted from the start, which helped overcome that obstacle.
Local 51 Business Manager Bobby Wedell and Wes Heckman, a Local 51 organizer and staff representative, noticed much the same thing.
“This is a really big win for us,” Wedell said. “With green energy growing the way it is and the push for renewables by our state government here in Illinois, we think it’s a really big deal.”
Grand Ridge is in LaSalle County, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago.
“It’s kind of a flagship facility for Invenergy,” Wedell said. “It has a really nice building and before the pandemic, it was the place for Invenergy to take people and show off a little bit.”
Heckman noted the organizing win was a team effort across the IBEW. He consulted with the staff at Seattle Local 77, which has bargaining agreements with Invenergy. He and others involved with the effort were disappointed when management tried to convince technicians to reject representation, especially after the company asked the IBEW and other unions for help in getting public utility status in Illinois and other states.
“They, [the wind technicians], understand that a boss’ promises are temporary, but a union contract is in writing,” Heckman said. “It wasn’t about the wages for them but about Invenergy’s policies that the company can change at any time. They had some real concerns about that.”
Warren said the Grand Ridge wind techs have not been treated poorly by company management but they thought a commitment to safety was not as important as it had been in the past. Some raises were slow in coming because managers did not follow through on evaluations and proper procedure at the correct time. Promised improvements failed to materialize on some issues.
The initial bargaining until will consist of 13 wind technicians along with an administrative assistant, who Warren said is invaluable to him and his colleagues.
“We felt like she deserved more in terms of representation,” he said. “Ultimately, my goal is to get her a more appropriate level of compensation because she has been underappreciated.”
Not surprisingly, with its flat terrain, central location and largely rural population south of the Chicago suburbs, Illinois ranks high among U.S. states in wind energy produced. The industry employs more than 8,000 workers in the state, third highest in the nation, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
But there is plenty of room for growth. The Illinois Legislature will consider a bill this year that calls for the state to use 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Illinois also will be one of four states along the proposed Grain Belt Express, an Invenergy-owned project that would transport wind power from western Kansas to markets in the eastern United States. Grain Belt is the reason the company asked the IBEW to support its attempts to be declared a utility, which makes it easier to construct the line. The IBEW and other trade unions supported those requests.
“I’m interested to see what happens once we get a first agreement with this group and if we can get the snowball rolling,” Wedell said. “It’s not just here in Illinois. These wind techs are talking to other techs all over the country.
“I’m not kidding myself. I know it’s not going to be easy [to organize other units]. But I’m personally looking forward to talking to them and showing them what the IBEW has to offer.”