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Unions push to secure employment for Copenhagen wind farm construction

COPENHAGEN – Union leaders are seeking additional dialogue with the Copenhagen Wind Farm developer and contractor to secure employment for their local workforce after a company with a local chapter wasn’t hired for subcontracting.

“This is the first wind farm in our jurisdiction that we’re not involved in,” said Scott E. Hilyard, president of Local 1822, Laborers’ International Union of North America, which represent construction workers in seven counties. “We need work up here for our local people.”

Concerns grew among local officials from the international union after Renewable Energy Systems Americas Inc., which EDF Renewable Energy contracted to build its 80-megawatt wind farm, recently decided not to subcontract access road construction work to one of the union’s contractors, the Johnstown-based Wesson Group LLC. Mr. Hilyard said he found out about Renewable Energy Systems’s decision around Labor Day.

Paul Judkins, a senior project manger with Renewable Energy Systems, said the decision was “strictly a monetary thing” and the contractor decided to perform most of the access road work itself with help from Wisconsin-based Rock Solid Stabilization and Reclamation Inc. for cement stabilization. Access road construction for the 40-turbine project in the town of Denmark began earlier this month.

“It was our understanding that one of our contractors would be contracted to perform work, but that fell through,” Mr. Hilyard said.

The news prompted Mr. Hilyard to pursue further discussions with Renewable Energy Systems in an effort to persuade the company to hire local workers represented by the chapter at the prevailing rate. The prevailing rate in Lewis County for heavy and highway projects is $25.06 per hour plus benefits.

Mr. Judkins said Renewable Energy Systems would be willing to talk with the local chapter, but union leaders would have to converse with his supervisors. The contractor wants to hire five or six more workers this year to join its 25-member workforce for road construction, which Mr. Judkins said has about five members who live within a 30-mile radius of Copenhagen. The senior project manager said the company welcomes applications from local laborers, including laborers from unions.

“We are not hiring through unions. We are a non-union company,” Mr. Judkins said, “but if a local union worker wanted to work … they would be considered.”

Mr. Hilyard, however, said he has not been able to reach Renewable Energy Systems’ administrative staff.

“We’re disappointed with the lack of communication on the corporate side,” said Harrison Watkins, a researcher with the New York State Laborers’ Organizing Fund, a subgroup of the international labor union. “We would welcome a phone call if he wants to utilize our labor force.”

Mr. Hilyard said his initial discussions with Mr. Judkins indicated that Renewable Energy Systems wasn’t eager to pay the prevailing rate, adding that the contractor pays workers only $17 per hour for the project. Mr. Judkins said he wasn’t sure if the decision pertained to wages because the company isn’t privy to the wage rates of subcontractors. The project manager declined to provide the wage rate for workers involved with the project.

“I don’t think they’re willing to pay the prevailing rate,” Mr. Hilyard said. “We consider that a fair living wage.”

Project manager James Damon from EDF Renewable Energy said the developer has no involvement with Renewable Energy Systems’s subcontracting or hiring process.

“Ultimately, it’s their decision and one that is based on competency and cost,” Mr. Damon said, adding that EDF encourages the contractor to hire locally.

The developer has pending payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements with Lewis County, the Copenhagen and Lowville Academy central school districts, Jefferson County and the towns of Denmark, Champion and Rutland that still need a sign-off from the developer.

Both Eric J. Virkler, director of the Lewis County Industrial Development Agency, and Jefferson County Board of Legislators Chairman Scott A. Gray said the agreements don’t require a certain number of local or union workers involved in construction, although Mr. Virkler said the developer must show an effort to secure local construction labor.

“The fact that they are not hiring local people solidifies our position going forward that full taxation is the right position,” Mr. Gray said, adding that having only 20 percent of the company’s workforce consist of local labor “basically nullifies (the developer’s) argument that it creates construction jobs … that doesn’t create any for our people.”

Tom Iorizzo, a Central New York representative of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, said he has made attempts to contact the companies to potentially bid on a wind farm construction project and to secure work for the laborers Local 277 represents.

“We want to make sure local labor is involved,” Mr. Iorizzo said. “We know how to do the work and we know how to do it timely.”

Renewable Energy Systems Americas plans to build the access roads and have all trees removed before the end of the year and will continue construction next spring.

The company, Mr. Judkins said, plans to host a job fair next year to hire additional labor and is interested in hiring more local workers, including workers from unions. Applications also are available at the project office, 7518 S. State St., Lowville.

“Whenever we come back, we will put on a job fair for civil work and we will pick up” from there, Mr. Judkins said. “There is absolutely an interest in hiring local labor.”

Construction is expected to be completed in late November 2018.