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Labor union seeks state’s help getting wind developers to hire local

Many Bakken workers have skills transferable to wind farm construction, but when some recently sought to help put up turbines in northwest North Dakota, they were frustrated that they were not hired, a labor union representative told lawmakers Thursday.

“Every license plate coming through on these jobs was Minnesota, Texas, Oklahoma,” said Evan Whiteford, a marketing representative for Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 563.

Companies involved in wind farm construction sometimes hire workers from other states who will accept lower wages, or they use a traveling workforce that moves from project to project across the country, according to the union.

“There are hundreds of skilled workers in the state waiting to fill these jobs,” said Pam Trhlik, director of government relations and new business development for the Laborers District Council of Minnesota and North Dakota.

The issue has frustrated Local 563 members in North Dakota and Minnesota for a number of years, and the union successfully pushed regulators in Minnesota to require that wind developers report where the workforce building their facilities lives.

The union has pursued the issue in North Dakota too, including when a company recently sought to build a wind farm in Ward and McLean counties. The state Public Service Commission didn’t go for it. Commissioners indicated the matter seems better addressed to the Legislature, Commerce Department or Job Service North Dakota.

So the union is backing Senate Bill 2301 to require that developers of wind farms and other projects sited by the PSC track where the workers they hire reside and report that information to commission. The PSC consists of three members involved in regulating projects such as major oil pipelines, natural gas plants and wind farms.

The Greater North Dakota Chamber opposes the measure. Lobbyist Matt Gardner questioned whether there is an adequate pool of workers in rural areas to build wind farms and said the measure would result in yet another regulatory form companies must fill out.

“Our businesses like low regulations, low burdens, and they just want to do their job,” he said. “I think this bill puts additional burden on business.”

The PSC told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that it supports the bill but wants several changes, and Local 563 is on board with them.

PSC Chair Julie Fedorchak asked that lawmakers amend several parts of the bill so that local labor is not elevated above other factors – such as the impact to the environment – that regulators consider when evaluating project permits.

She said the PSC is “generally supportive of the concept behind this bill” and has spoken to Minnesota regulators about how the policy has worked there.

“They feel it has made a difference in the amount of local workers that are being hired for projects,” she said.

The committee did not immediately vote on the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo and several others of both parties.