gavinsolar.jpgBenefits promised by private companies vying to construct the biggest solar farm of its kind were expected to extend beyond those of clean, renewable energy: the Sunset Reservoir solar project would create jobs, those companies said, 71 “green-tech” jobs, with 21 of those jobs guaranteed to folks living in San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods.

However, things haven’t quite worked out that way for Recurrent Energy and BASS Electric, the project designer and sponsor, respectively, and the city’s Public Utilities Commission: there’s been only eight jobs, not 21, and those eight jobs haven’t included much hands-on experience with solar to the city’s down-and-out — the green tasks have been going to union workers. And in fact, the much-trumpeted and thus-far unfulfilled promises that the Sunset Reservoir solar project would create jobs for unemployed people living in San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods were “unrealistic,” according to a city official tasked with overseeing hiring practices.
Recurrent Energy’s 5 megawatt, 25,000 panel project is the biggest of its kind in California, but constriction contractor BASS Electric has lagged in fulfilling a goal of hiring at least 21 of 71 total workers employed on the project from places like Bayview, hiring only eight to date.

Union work rules have been partly blamed for this (as labor unions with 30-50 percent unemployment rates put the workers out of work the longest on job sites first), but the 21 jobs figure might have been pie in the sky to begin with, according to Donna Levitt, who oversees the city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement.

“I don’t know who was even at the table when this [local hiring] agreement was hammered out,” she told a committee hearing on Monday, “but it sounds like there were some unrealistic expectations and agreements made.”

Just who is to blame for the promise-breaking? Supervisor Eric Mar called for relaxation of union work rules. “It can’t just be one union — IBEW — saying, ‘We do this work,'” at the expense of other unions or nonunion workers, he said.

“And the 21 jobs for the community should have begun right at the beginning of the project,” he added, “not something phased over time.”

Officials from Recurrent Energy pledged to ramp up construction efforts in the ensuing weeks to get closer to the magic number of 21 by the end of the month. But therein lies another broken promise: those jobs will be less-skilled laborer tasks rather than the much-trumpeted “green collar” duties of actually handling and installing solar panels, which are going to members of the IBEW Local 6 electricians’ union.

One doesn’t necessarily need a union card in order to install solar panels: volunteers from the Bayview community installed the solar panels currently atop neighborhood activist Espanola Jackson’s home, pointed out Joshua Arce, executive director of nonprofit advocacy group Brightline Defense Project.

But long-standing carpenters’, electricians’ and laborers’ unions, all facing high unemployment in this bad economy, have already squabbled over who gets what work on the Sunset project, admitted Rhonda Simmons, of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce and Economic Development.

“This whole notion of green collar jobs… has presented some nuance problems over who gets what,” said Simmons, who also noted that “race politics” are getting in the way of local hiring goals. “We would be remiss not to acknowledge that,” she said. “We have a difficulty calling it out for what it is, but we all know what it’s about.”

It’s about promises that probably should never have been made in the first place, but it’s also about unions. Who can fault unions for jealously guarding jobs for which they’ve been waiting patiently, even if well-meaning politicians might have promised them away to folks who may not have union cards?

San Franciscans might do well to observe a union squabble over solar projects in Los Angeles. There, voters shot down a local ballot proposition that would have built 400 megawatts of solar panels across the city… in part because of a requirement that the installations be done by card-carrying members of the electricians’ union, rather than carpenters, laborers or even “green job” holders.

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