Workers at a wind turbine blade manufacturing plant in Newton are seeking to join a union citing concerns over safety and workplace conditions.
Employees at the TPI Composites plant will vote in December on whether they should become members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 347 in Des Moines. The IBEW is a union representing manufacturing, utilities and electrical workers, as well as workers in other fields.
The workers will vote on the measure Dec. 10 and 11.
Brian Heins, a regional organizer for the union, is helping the workers organize and said employees have concerns with workplace conditions, scheduling and safety.
Harold Prior, executive director of the Iowa Wind Energy Association, said about 7,000 people work in wind-related positions in Iowa. He said he’s not previously heard of worker complaints or of any previous attempts to unionize at a wind turbine manufacturing facility.
Prior said he has personally toured most of those facilities in Iowa, including two visits to TPI’s Newton plant, and said the manufacturers all appear extremely safety conscious. “They take extreme care to make sure it’s a safe work environment,” Prior said.
Instead, Prior said he usually hears complaints about the “boom and bust cycle” of the wind industry, where employers may hire a large number of workers only to lay them off later. That volatility, he said, comes from constant uncertainty over whether Congress will renew a program that provides tax credits to wind producers.
“What I know they’re concerned about is how they can have stable conditions and a stable workforce when we have a federal system that is so unpredictable,” he said. “The blame for that lies squarely at the foot of Congress.”
Prior said wind is typically not an organized union industry. Should the workers join the IBEW local chapter, Prior said he did not think it would have a huge impact on productivity. Instead, he said it would help put workers on an even footing with management.
The TPI facility employs about 600 workers involved in molding, painting and construction of composite blades for wind turbines, according to a statement from IBEW.
Heins said he has heard of at least two separate incidents in the past three to four months in which employees have lost fingers while working at the plant.
Terry Van Huysen, the plant’s general manager, could not be reached for comment. Calls to TPI’s Scottsdale, Ariz., headquarters were not returned.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration currently has an inspection open at the Newton plant, according to publicly available records. The agency issued citations Oct. 15 for six violations and ordered the company to fix them. They include such conditions as a lack of guarding around machinery. OSHA has fined TPI $7,650, records show.
OSHA also inspected the facility last year and issued citations on March 22, 2012, for 10 violations resulting in fines totaling $1,500.
Both inspections were prompted by OSHA complaints from facility employees. The citations are not the only times TPI has clashed with its Newton workers. In September 2012, the Newton Daily News reported that TPI settled a class action lawsuit with workers at the Newton plant who said the company required them to work during off-duty hours, violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.