It’s not easy being nonunion green
SACRAMENTO – The state’s Democratic legislators have an inordinate hostility to the free marketplace, as evidenced by their endless push for new business regulations and for higher taxes for corporations and wealthy Californians. Yet there is one form of business development that the California Left has embraced with particular gusto – the “green jobs” industry that will supposedly usher in a new era of growth and prosperity, all in the service of the higher good of a clean environment.
Tuesday, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown announced his green-jobs plan in Silicon Valley, where he promised the creation of a half-million jobs through renewable-energy generation, boasted about a “California solar highway” and promised, as governor, to hire a “renewable-energy czar.” During the week, one of Brown’s biggest supporters – the Service Employees International Union – sponsored a series of radio ads championing Brown’s jobs and energy plan.
Yet if Brown is serious about green jobs, then the first thing he might have to do is take on his union allies.
A complex hearing set for June 25 in the bowels of the Sacramento bureaucracy shapes up as epitomizing what true believers in green jobs are up against as they hope to spark an entrepreneurial resurgence in California built around clean energy. As usual, the state’s unions are trying to use government power to crush that which they cannot control – in this case, nonunion contractors who are trying to train workers in the photovoltaic industry.
The hearing before a committee of the California Apprenticeship Council concerns a San Jose-area entrepreneur named Jose Radzinsky, owner of Renewable Power Solutions, a small business that installs solar panels on buildings throughout Silicon Valley.
In order to vie for public-works projects, California businesses must use workers who have been through state-approved apprenticeship programs, which are generally provided by unions. None of the unions provides such a solar program, so Radzinsky created his own two-year program and asked the state’s apprenticeship council for approval. He received the staff’s OK in 2009.
“That’s when the trouble began,” said Mitch Zak, a consultant to commercial contractors, who brought Radzinsky’s plight to my attention. “This immigrant from Uruguay was about to discover that California today is not a place that rewards innovation, hard work and creativity.”
The unions challenged the state’s approval to the appointed members of the council, who can overrule staff. During the Gray Davis era, the state passed a particularly nasty piece of union-backed legislation that only allows the creation of new apprenticeship programs if there is no existing program that provides similar training. It’s the equivalent of the state saying that no new restaurants can open up in a particular area if there are other restaurants providing similar of food and drink choices. That’s the basis of the union complaint.
Although there is no union solar program, the unions offer apprenticeship training in each of the various disciplines (electrical, roofing, plumbing, sheet metal) involved in the installation of photovoltaic panels. Under the union-oriented rules, Radzinsky told me he would have to first call an electrical contractor, then a roofer, then a plumber, etc., rather than have one fully trained solar expert to do the work. It’s a form of union featherbedding – a business owner would essentially have to hire four people to do the work of one person if he wants to compete on public jobs.
People who like the current noncompetitive system are expected to dominate the upcoming hearing. The Contra Costa County Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee, comprised of members of the electrical union and the contractors association, argued in a letter to the commission that it is opposed to Radzinsky’s program: “The proposed program for a photovoltaic installer is not needed, due to the fact; that the existing electrical apprentice program in Contra Costa County is all ready [sic] providing this type of training.”
Actually, they don’t provide such training. The unions provide separate training programs for roofing, plumbing, electrical, but it is not combined into one specialty field dealing with solar installations – which is Radzinsky’s reason for going to the trouble and expense of creating the program. But the unions have such control that they can stop competitors from offering new and better types of apprenticeship training.
It’s not just unions that have lobbied against the freedom of a businessman to start a apprenticeship program. Businesses do the same thing. Ted Baker, president of Baker Electric in Escondido, sent a May 14 letter to the state explaining that his company has installed “over 500 PV [photovoltaic] units across Southern California using these highly trained Inside Wiremen and Journeymen. … The Photo Voltaic Apprenticeship Program in Santa Clara County seems to be unnecessary and unwarranted from our company’s point of view.”
Translation of both letters: “We don’t want any new competition!”
The official complaint the unions filed against Radzinsky is based on Labor Code Section 3075, the above-referenced rule that Davis implemented in 1999. Ironically, the California law is so egregious that even the federal government took issue with it. The federal Department of Labor “derecognized” the state law in 2002, but it remains on the California books and will remain a hindrance to the green-jobs industry.
Jerry Brown likes to talk about the entrepreneurial spirit this new industry will unleash. Last week, he said California is “a place of imagination and ideas.” That’s definitely true, but trouble arises when it comes time to put those ideas in practice. That’s when the regulators, the unions and the politically connected businesses step in and put up their anti-competitive, government-enforced barriers.
In reality, the whole green jobs shtick is a bit of a scam – it’s a highly subsidized industry that is more about flash than reality. In many cases, green-job advocates simply reclassify current jobs as “green” and then, voila, the oldest tech industry becomes a new, cutting-edge deal.
Still, I’m all for this new industry, and any new industry, for that matter, provided that it is driven by private investment and not by government. It needs to be given a chance to thrive.
But this new industry will never truly unleash Californians’ “imagination and ideas” if unions and regulators are allowed to halt those entrepreneurs who are trying to make a go of it. One cannot build an entrepreneurial culture or industry with such stifling work rules. New ideas are advanced by risk-takers such as Radzinsky, not hatched in commissions, bureaus and union halls.
The apprenticeship council should uphold the approval of Radzinsky’s program. The Legislature should overturn Labor Code 3075, and Brown – if he’s serious about this issue – should explain to voters how he intends to break the union stranglehold that threatens his beloved green-jobs industry.
Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific
Research Institute’s www.calwatchdog.com Journalism Center.