October 2, 2009 Volume 110 Number 19

Portland ordinance will help unions get into residential ‘green jobs’

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Unions may get a foothold in Portland’s “home energy retrofit” market — and be a part of reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions — thanks to a Sept. 30 City Council resolution.

Under the resolution, contractors selected for the city’s Clean Energy Works Portland pilot project will be required to enroll new hires in a certified training program. The Oregon and Southern Idaho Laborers Employers Training Trust will likely be the first such program ready to go.

The resolution also requires that contractors commit to neutrality toward any decision by workers to unionize, and agree to recognize a union if a majority sign authorization cards. And contractors will be required to pay the prevailing wage or 180 percent of the Oregon minimum wage, whichever is higher.

Clean Energy Works Portland was developed by the City of Portland, modified by the Oregon Legislature, and funded by a $2.5 million stimulus grant from U.S. Department of Energy. The program loans homeowners money to do retrofits, which can consist of insulation, air and duct sealing, and installation of more efficient furnaces, heat pumps, and hot water heaters. The loan is then paid back over a 20-year period on gas and electric bills. Since the energy savings begin right away, homeowners can expect to have no increase on their bills, even as they enjoy the increased comfort of a better-insulated home.

A pool of 12 contractors for Clean Energy Works Portland will be selected using a “best value contracting” process, which gives extra points to employers that provide health insurance, hire graduates of pre-apprenticeship programs, and employ women, minorities, and formerly incarcerated individuals.

“Any effort to raise the floor on standards is going to help us,” said Laborers organizer Ben Nelson, “because the contractors we want to work with are the ones that want to have benefits. And a lot of things you agree to do as a union contractor are going to add points in this best-value bidding process.”

A city-appointed committee will enforce the resolution and certify the training providers.

Laborers training director Al DeVita said the Corvallis-based center is ready in October to start training weatherization installer technicians, supervisors, and home energy auditors. Based on employer demand, the classes could be held in Portland. Workers new to the field would take a two-week general construction and safety training class, followed by a two-week weatherization installer tech class.

Laborers union representatives are pursuing talks with several contractors about a special residential wage and benefit rate, which would be lower than the union’s regular scale for commercial work.

Representatives of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters and the Sheet Metal Workers have also shown interest, and could follow up with training programs of their own.

The City Council resolution is formally known as the “Community Workforce Agreement on Standards and Community Benefits in the Clean Energy Workers Portland Pilot Project.” Local union reps call it a breakthrough, and possible model for other locales. Federal investment in retrofits is rapidly growing, but unions have had little presence in residential work. The Portland program is starting small: 500 homes are supposed to be completed by next summer. So the immediate impact of the resolution is modest. The pilot project is expected to employ about 40 workers, and about 10 of those would be new hires who would go through the training program.

But the work is on track to scale up rapidly. Project managers envision home energy retrofits for 100,000 homes in Multnomah County in the coming years. Portland is competing with other cities for an additional federal grant of $100 million, and may know by the end of the year whether it will get that funding.

The Portland resolution was the product of months of complex multiparty negotiations. Local Laborers took part, with support of representatives from the international union and Change To Win, plus Green For All, Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc., several minority pre-apprenticeship programs, and the labor-faith-community group Metropolitan Alliance for the Common Good. The resolution spells out that a project goal is that 20 percent of the dollars go to minority, women or emerging small business contractors, while 30 percent of the workers be women, minorities or from low-income communities. To meet the latter goal, contractors sign “first source” hiring agreements with qualified training programs.

Up to now, there hasn’t been an officially established “prevailing wage rate” for the “weatherization technician” classification, since there was never any requirement that contractors pay prevailing wage. But the U.S. Department of Labor, asked to do a survey, found that for Multnomah County the standard compensation was $15 an hour plus 29 cents an hour for benefits. That would be the wage under the resolution, since 180 percent of Oregon’s minimum wage is $15.12 an hour.

The City Council meeting to vote on the resolution took place after this issue went to press, but there was no known opposition.

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