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Labor coalition's tactics on renewable energy projects are criticized

Three California unions criticize CURE for challenging construction projects on environmental grounds, then dropping objections after CURE's affiliate wins contracts to supply workers. CURE says it aims to protect people and the environment.

February 05, 2011|By Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times
  • The site of the Blythe Solar Power Project in east Riverside County. CURE signed a labor agreement for that project in July, after it had filed requests for information about air pollution and habitat for fringe-toed lizards and other animals.
The site of the Blythe Solar Power Project in east Riverside County. CURE… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Sacramento — Three California unions are accusing a rival labor coalition of using "shameful" tactics to win exclusive contracts for building renewable power plants — tactics they said delay new jobs and add to each project's costs.

Unions representing carpenters, laborers and operating engineers criticized California Unions for Reliable Energy for challenging construction projects on environmental grounds — then dropping objections after its main affiliate, the State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, wins lucrative contracts to supply workers.

Since 2000, CURE has participated in environmental hearings for all 12 renewable energy projects proposed for the Southern California desert, filing more than 1,300 requests for data about water, air pollution and endangered animal species, according to the California Energy Commission.

To date, the building trades council has signed contracts to build one geothermal project and seven solar projects, and CURE has dropped objections to those plants. CURE has suits pending against two developers that did not sign labor agreements, and it is no longer pursuing claims on two other projects.

The contracts give the council control over setting work rules, including hiring. The council enlists members of CURE's affiliated unions — boilermakers, electrical workers, plumbers and pipefitters — and, if needed, other, less costly union workers such as carpenters.

Some deals come with payments of as much as $400,000 to CURE for a trust that promotes the industry. CURE and the council operate out of the same Sacramento office and have the same top executive, Robert Balgenorth.

State Energy Commissioner Jeffrey Byron said that CURE is entitled to participate in power plant licensing proceedings and that it sometimes provides useful research and expert witnesses. But he's skeptical of the coalition's motives.

"It does strain credibility when you have an organization called CURE that is concerned with the desert tortoise and wildlife habitat and turns around and disappears when a project labor agreement is signed. Then it takes credit for improvements to the project to justify its existence," he said.

CURE countered that it was motivated by a desire to protect the environment. Sophisticated labor groups, said CURE's lawyer, Marc D. Joseph, understand that any complex project must meet stringent environmental standards.

"This is not the 1960s," Joseph said. "People in the building trades are not stupid. They understand that their economic future depends on developing projects in an environmentally sustainable way."

CURE's intervention in power plant licensing hearings is aimed at making sure that construction workers and residents of nearby communities are protected from environmental dangers, Balgenorth said. A subsequent project labor agreement is "a tool to make sure labor standards are set in place and the owners have what they need," he said.

In an industry publication last September, Balgenorth denounced the carpenters union's leaders as being "anti-worker" and involved in a "transparent attempt to snatch more than the carpenters' fair share of good jobs away from the building trades workers."

CURE, of course, isn't the only group challenging power plant construction on environmental grounds. The Quechan Native American tribe, for instance, has filed a lawsuit against the federal government in an attempt to block construction of Tessera Solar's Imperial Valley solar power plant in the Sonoran Desert.

CURE's motives were questioned six years ago by Riverside and Roseville, Calif., officials, but an Energy Commission inquiry concluded that the staff did not have enough information to determine whether CURE leveraged the environmental review process to win project labor agreements.

The intra-labor dispute erupted in the last year as President Obama and now California Gov. Jerry Brown have looked to alternative energy and other environmental projects to help the nation and the state create jobs and spur the economic recovery.

Obama wants to reduce the nation's reliance on oil, and Brown wants to build enough renewable plants over the next nine years to power nearly every home in the state.

The carpenters and other two unions said the threat of CURE lawsuits could drive private-sector renewable-energy developers to other states or even out of business at a time when California has a 12.5% unemployment rate, the second-highest in the nation.

CURE is "here for one reason, which is to extract or shoehorn this company, this industry, into a project labor agreement that is not only costly and restrictive but inappropriate under the circumstances," Daniel Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters, testified last year at an Energy Commission hearing about solar plant licensing.

"To use the environmental issues to extract this is really shameful," he said.

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