Author: Ralph Jacobson
It took a meeting with a union organizer and our eight crew members to open my eyes as to how my crew’s narratives about the world differed from mine.
As an electrical contractor, I am a signatory to the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) contract, I had recruited and hired these men for my company from the Black community to install solar arrays. I was planning to organize each of them into the electrical apprenticeship program which would get them started on careers as electricians. Solar installation has been deemed electrical work by the Minnesota Board of Electricity, so being an electrician gives access to a lot of work in this field.
But one after another, each one said, “I don’t want to spend five years of my life being ordered around by middle-aged white electricians. No thanks!” As that sunk in, I realized that to them, this pathway looked like indentured servitude, of which generations of Black people have experienced too much. “Been fooled before, not this time!” This was my rude awakening to the narrative that they carry, and some darned good direct feedback!
My story about trade unions begins with my grandfather, who was the first business agent of the Ironworkers Local #512 when it was organized under the AFL-CIO in the 1930’s. Following him, my dad and my uncles all made careers in ironwork. They had good jobs, solidly blue-collar middle class. Then what was up with the members of the installation team? Didn’t a union electrical career look good to them? A friend from the Northside clued me in: up until the 1930’s, contractors up north would sometimes hire skilled Black workers from down south for lower wages. The narrative the members of the installation team brought into the conversation is that the trade unions were organized to keep Black workers out.
These men took pride in their work; and loved that they were making a difference in the world. A lot of the work of installing solar panels is actually skilled labor work and not electrical, but it is all covered under the union contract. So now I was in trouble with the union because I had hired non-union workers who were not interested in the path to membership that was offered. I began to wonder if there are any alternatives – what about a laborer’s union track? Again, each one said, “I could do that.” A white guy might not catch the difference: it would seem like a parallel role, not a subservient one, to the electrical work.
There has been talk for a while about creating a “construction electrician” track for just this purpose. This has met with resistance from the rank and file electricians because they don’t want to give up work that they and their forerunners fought for. I don’t find that to be unreasonable – most electricians have seen times when work was scarce.
It is not my intention to start blaming the union or anybody else, but here is a situation that clearly illustrates the difficulty of rooting out systemic racial bias, once we go from setting a broad intention, to actually digging down and finding that root to pull out. We find that there is no one person or rule to go after, but a whole lot of reasonable people just doing their jobs. However, we are up against attitudes on all sides, and each one has some history to reckon with.
Systemic racism is so pervasive in our society that most of us find it impossible to find a way to get started on that kind of work. We each have a lot of work to do in the circles that we operate in, where we can have an impact. Thinking about where attitudes come from may give us a pathway to solutions, like the little piece of yarn sticking out of the sweater, that you pull on and the knitted structure starts to unravel. An attitude that makes me not want to share comes from a place of fear and anxiety, even if one’s family has been blessed with having enough for generations. The fear is vestigial, but it runs deep, and it can influence our behavior towards other people. Helping someone soften that kind of an attitude usually can’t be done in one swift move, it takes time. I was reminded by a friend who works in a factory that when people who were different from each other, worked side-by-side, they got to know each other. Their attitudes softened as they became real people in each other’s eyes.
A potential way out of my impasse came up recently, when I received a call from an officer at a large electrical company, which is a union shop. He wanted to get some insight about why the union shops are not getting much market share in the burgeoning solar industry. We had a chance to discuss some economic realities, that perhaps having higher-paid electricians doing all of the labor work on a solar installation is pricing them out of the market. We agreed that if he could support the creation of a construction electrician track, his pricing could be more competitive, and his electricians would see more work in the solar field.
This change could show up to the electricians as an opportunity for new work, and not as a need to give up some work. It could make it easier for some union members to soften their attitudes, because their interest in solar work would align with the creation of a track under the union contract that would be more acceptable to a group of people that the members of the installation team spoke for. I find it encouraging to think that the interests of these two groups could be aligned, and I view this is an example of where the real work needs to be done in order to move from well-stated intentions to actually taking down oppressive barriers to full participation of Black people in the economy.
We’re not there yet, but there is already a lesson in this for me. If we can find a way to align the interests for all of those involved, so that change shows up as opportunity, more people may be willing to look beyond their deeply emotional attitudes, and work together to undo structures that exclude or reduce opportunity for people based on the outdated notion of “race”. We can find ways to align our interests in such a way that everyone can benefit.
[Ralph Jacobson (email@example.com) is the Founder of IPS Solar and Chief Innovation Officer of IPS Development, a 30-year solar development company in Roseville, Minnesota, and was the founding Board Chair of the Minnesota Solar Energy Industries Association.]