Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

“Affinities with Craft Unionism”

Johnathan Guy

Green capitalism is ascendant. The IRA will inject hundreds of billions of dollars of clean energy tax credits into the economy over the next ten years to be gobbled up by firms of all stripes and sizes. In line with its market orientation, the IRA does not specify which firms or clean energy technologies will ultimately claim these tax credits, setting off a frenzy among investors and organizers alike.

Exactly what energy technologies should be prioritized is a heated topic of debate on the left. On one hand, environmental justice organizations voiced their displeasure over the IRA’s definition of technologies such as nuclear power, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and blue (natural gas-sourced) hydrogen as “clean energy,” making them eligible for subsidies. These groups oppose such technologies on the basis of their health and environmental risks, favoring instead the alternative of small-scale wind and solar power generation. 

On the other hand, those with affinities for the labor movement often defend nuclear, CCS, and so on (henceforth called “blue tech” for short) on the grounds that they are better for workers. They point to the fact that workplaces which employ blue tech are unionized at higher rates and receive better wages and workplace protections. The wind and solar industries, in contrast, are characterized by low rates of unionization, abysmal pay, and appalling working conditions. For example, while their pay increased modestly during the pandemic, solar installers make on average between $15 and $25 per hour, and face significant job precarity; in contrast, nuclear power plant operators make about $53 per hour and enjoy stable employment. (The workers who actually make the solar panels are mostly located in China and are typically left out of the conversation.) The few solar and wind jobs that do pay well, moreover, are on large-scale projects such as utility-scale solar and offshore wind, not the small-scale projects environmental justice groups favor. For these reasons, the unions representing workers in the energy industry and the building trades (IBEW, LiUNA, Pipefitters, etc.) tend to lobby in favor of blue tech. They oppose nuclear and gas plant closures, and were instrumental in getting the Democratic caucus to make these technologies eligible for IRA benefits. Blue tech advocates cite these unions’ position as evidence that they are the true representatives of working-class interests.

The blue tech camp has a point. Right now, nuclear and gas jobs are good, and wind and solar jobs are mostly shitty. What is less remarked upon is why blue tech coincides with greater labor power. Part of this has to do with the policy context in which each energy source emerged: nuclear power, oil, and gas came of age in eras with supportive labor laws, or else had decades for organizers to unionize them, whereas wind and solar have had only a decade under hostile labor law. But the main reason blue tech pays so well is that it requires more skilled labor than wind and solar installation. Since skilled workers are scarce, they have greater power in the labor market and in collective bargaining negotiations. When making the case that blue tech is more “pro-labor,” blue tech socialists are essentially arguing that the labor movement should be rebuilt on the basis of worker expertise, rather than the strength of their self-organization.

This position has affinities with craft unionism, an idea dating back to the nineteenth century. In the United States, the labor movement waged a fierce debate over how to organize. Craft unionists advocated for particularly skilled workers to be organized into unions based on occupation, while industrial unionists argued that skilled and unskilled workers should instead be organized together into unions based on workplace. The craft unionists’ position was partly pragmatic; it was easier to organize workers who shared the same job. But craft unionism was also ideological, derived from the notion that skilled workers deserved better jobs than unskilled workers, and should look out for the interests of their occupation, rather than those of the working class as a whole. It is no accident that industrial unionism — most famously in the form of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) — was favored among socialists and communists, who saw unions at their best as vehicles for the working class in general over any group of workers in particular. 

Today, the building trades, which construct energy infrastructure, are organized explicitly along the lines of occupation. Energy unions that, like the Utility Workers Union of America, formally adhere to the industrial model — say, the workers operating a nuclear power plant — nevertheless retain a craft unionist mindset, and they advocate for technologies that match the scarce skill profile of their workers. Often, these unions will lobby to artificially restrict the supply of skilled workers through apprenticeship quotas, placing sharp limits on the fraction of the workforce that can become members and benefit. They are also frequently stratified internally on the basis of skill, operating according to tiered contracts that cater to specialized workers at the expense of general manual laborers. Such stratification has historically mapped onto race and gender lines, which is part of why the building trades are often accused of chauvinism.

Even if these unions became less white and male, the fact remains that their power is primarily rooted in skill scarcity, rather than worker solidarity and militancy. There may be good reasons for the labor movement to rely on this crutch in the short run, facilitating the unionization of clean power generation where it would otherwise be infeasible due to lower skill profiles. Ultimately, however, the working class cannot rely on high-skill tech to advance its interests. As Marx observed, capitalism has a tendency to de-skill and automate production, creating surplus labor supply in the process; the coal industry exemplifies that tendency. The solution lies in organizing such that all energy workers — from nuclear engineers to home insulators — can assert their power by the threat of withholding labor. While there may be other reasons to support blue tech, doing so on the basis of worker power is just another shortcut.

Johnathan Guy is a PhD candidate in Political Science at UC Berkeley, a rank-and-file organizer in UAW 2865, and an editor of The Trouble.