VOICES: Why won't U.S. corporations invest in U.S. workers?

Phil Mattera, Dirt Diggers Digest

In late October the company, A-Power Energy Generation Systems, announcedthat it had been chosen to supply some 240 turbines for a large windfarm planned for Texas. That would have been just another in a longseries of manufacturing-goes-to-China stories, but for reportsthat the group launching the $1.5 billion project--a joint venture ofChina's Shenyang Power, Texas-based Cielo Wind Power and private equityfirm U.S. Renewable Energy Group--was intending to take advantage ofU.S. government funding through the Recovery Act.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer raised a stink about this in an open letter toEnergy Secretary Steven Chu, highlighting reports that while the Texaswind farm would create a modest number of local jobs, the much biggeremployment impact--2,000 to 3,000 jobs--would be felt at A-Power'sfactories in China.

The ensuing uproar--with protests coming from figures as divergent as Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard and rightwing Missouri Senator Kit Bond--gotthe joint venture's attention. While not abandoning the plan to importturbines for the Texas wind farm, A-Power and U.S. Renewable EnergyGroup announced on November 17 that they would construct a new wind turbine factory in the United States with a workforce of about 1,000.

That's good news for the job-starved American economy, but all theattention given to A-Power has obscured a set of larger problemsconcerning the U.S. renewable energy industry.

The first is that the operation of facilities such as wind farmsdoes not generate much employment--once built, they basically runthemselves. The real employment potential is in manufacturing theturbines and other components used to generate wind and solar energy.

The disturbing fact is that, with the exception of General Electric,large U.S. companies have shown little interest in domestic productionof these components. This has created an opening for foreign firms suchas Gamesa (from Spain), Vestas (Denmark), Siemens (Germany) and Sanyo(Japan) to capture a large share of U.S. production of wind and solarcomponents. Over the past few years they have invested hundreds ofmillions of dollars in plants from Pennsylvania to Oregon--and haveoften received lavish state and local economic development subsidies for doing so.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis has taken its toll on thissector, and expansion plans are being curtailed or postponed. Forexample, wind turbine maker Vestas, which has invested heavily inColorado and planned to boost its workforce in that state to 2,500, recently said it would slow its pace of hiring.

To make matters worse, some of the newer U.S.-based wind and solarmanufacturing companies that claim to be interested in domesticproduction have been lured by the siren call of cheap overseas labor.Evergreen Solar, for instance, recently revealedthat it plans to shift assembly of solar panels from its heavilysubsidized plant in Devens, Massachusetts to Wuhan, China. It wouldfollow in the footsteps of U.S. firms such as First Solar, whichalready does most of its manufacturing in Malaysia, and TPI Composites,which produces wind turbine blades in Mexico and China.

It's also not the case that foreign firms are always worse thandomestic ones when it comes to respecting the rights of workers. Withinthe wind and solar sector there are U.S. companies that seek to weakentheir unions (such as GE) or keep them out altogether (e.g., DMIIndustries, which foughta Teamsters organizing drive). At the same time, there is Spain'sGamesa, which accepted the desire of its workers in Pennsylvania tounionize and has developed a cooperative relationship with the Steelworkers.

From a labor perspective, the issue is not whether a company isforeign or domestic. What counts is whether it is redlining U.S.workers or giving them a chance to participate in producing thecomponents of the economy of the future.