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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Labor Dispute Over Solar Panels Heats Up

Posted By on Wed, Jun 23, 2010 at 9:28 AM

click to enlarge Members of Aboriginal Blackmen United wait for a meeting with City Administrator Ed Lee
  • Members of Aboriginal Blackmen United wait for a meeting with City Administrator Ed Lee
A labor dispute over solar technology is heating up, with one union now considering legal action against the city, and a Bayview workers' group visiting City Hall to demand meetings with top officials.

At issue is the question of who gets to install solar panels -- a job that promises to be lucrative, given the enthusiasm for renewable energy at the city and state levels.

"It's all a matter of jockeying for position" in the realm of green jobs, David De La Torre, the secretary-treasurer of the Laborers' Union Local 261, told SF Weekly. 

On June 11, a city office responded to a complaint filed by the electricians' union by ruling that solar panel installation work should be compensated at the prevailing wage for electricians.

In essence, this decision would shut out lower-paid laborers from performing even the basic tasks that are part of installing solar panel systems.

Now the laborers' union and a community hiring group from the Bayview are squaring off against the electricians' union, arguing that they are unfairly trying to monopolize an emerging technology.

City Administrator Edwin Lee
said on Tuesday that the city's Office of Labor Standards

Enforcement (OLSE) should never have made a determination on the wage question, but instead left the matter up to the labor groups. If he had the power to revoke the decision, he would, Lee said.

At least one supervisor is also looking to undo the determination. "I had been expecting that there would be some discussion before a ruling like that, that seems to support one labor group over another," Eric Mar told SF Weekly  on Friday. "It definitely jeopardizes our community hiring."

Local 261 may take legal action against the city and county because of the decision, De La Torre said on Monday. But, he said, negotiation with the electricians and other stakeholders will come first.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 6 business manager John O'Rourke did not respond to repeated requests for comment.  

Donna Levitt, manager of the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, defended her office's decision that solar panel work should be paid at an electricians' wage, saying that contractors often choose to pay the lowest wage, rather than the correct one.

On Tuesday, about 20 members of the Aboriginal Blackmen United (ABU), an independent Bayview hiring group, came to City Hall to ask Lee to revoke Levitt's decision. The group included District 10 supervisorial candidate Diane Wesley Smith. After meeting with Lee, the group also waited for about two hours outside the mayor's office.

This was the same group whose protest shut down construction at the Sunset Reservoir solar project for two days last week after one of their members was sent home from the job.

The Bayview group is arguing that giving electricians full responsibility for solar installation will shut out local hires from disadvantaged neighborhoods, who should be given training in green energy skills.

City officials have repeatedly said they are committed to meeting the city's local hiring goals for construction projects, whatever the outcome of the solar panel battle.

All of the city's solar projects are on hold while the Public Utilities Commission works quickly to resolve the labor dispute, communications manager Charles Sheehan said.

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