First Contract Sets High Standards for Michigan Renewables Jobs

After a year of intense negotiations, UWUA members who work as wind technicians at DTE Energy ratified their first union contract. The agreement addresses the issues that had first prompted the group to organize in late 2021 and includes higher wages, caps on healthcare costs, defined work rules and vacation time.

Senior Wind Technician and new UWUA Local 223 member Joe Stager, seen here 320 feet above the ground, making his way out of the hub of one of DTE’s GE 1.6-100 turbines.

The newest members are now afforded the same benefits and protections as other Local 223 members who work for the company. Local 223 represents over 3,800 members at the utility’s 13 bargaining units, covering 200 occupations — everything from nuclear, power plants, customer service, gas distribution, substations, underground, linemen, transmission lines and every utility job in between.

Under the agreement, base wind technician wages increase 10.9% in the first year, plus another 15% over the next two years. Senior wind techs bargained an 8.9% average wage increase in the first year and an additional 8.5% increase in the second year — in addition to a ratification bonus. In the contract’s first year, base hourly wages of senior wind technicians range from $39.65 to $47.14. Members also secured better health insurance coverage with lower deductibles, and they negotiated more vacation time with more flexible vacation policies.

“It was a big win for everyone involved and we’re glad to welcome these members into the Local 223 family,” said UWUA Local 223 President Juanita Ray.

Ray said the process took longer than anticipated mainly because of an initial difference in approach to the bargaining between management and the union. “The union looked to add this group as a new classification in our existing contract with DTE, while management appeared to want to keep the wind techs separate and start a new contract from scratch.” The local has a master contract with DTE that was most recently renewed in 2020 and runs through 2026.

“Things started moving once the company realized that the union wasn’t backing down, and they sent new representatives to the table that were better prepared to move the process forward,” Ray said. In the end, the wind technicians became part of the local’s master agreement with DTE.

The wind technicians work at wind farms located near Breckenridge and Bad Axe, Michigan, performing corrective maintenance on turbines. Dustin Maurer, now a senior wind technician based out of the company’s Huron Renewable Energy Center, started as a contractor back in 2014 when DTE’s wind program was relatively new. It had erected its first wind turbine in 2012. He has witnessed the tremendous expansion of DTE’s wind capacity; the company now has 613 turbines over a dozen farms in the two regions.

Maurer, along with about half of his fellow wind technicians, worked for DTE subcontractors until September 2020, when they became DTE employees after the company brought corrective maintenance functions in house. Preventive maintenance is still performed by an outside contractor. “The prospect and opportunity to bring preventive maintenance in house was one of the biggest drivers behind why we pursued union representation,” Maurer said, adding, “We don’t want DTE to return to using outside contractors. We want to ensure that we have a voice in how these jobs are defined.”

Austin Osentoski, a senior engineer technician who has been employed by DTE for the past five years and worked in the industry for 11 years, agreed: “The contract means clear work rules and job protections. Before, there were too many changes from day to day, and we never knew for sure what was expected of us.”

Maurer is happy to have a contract in place that will open the door for other renewables work. He sees DTE expanding its wind operations and making ventures into solar and battery storage, as well. “Now that we’ve unionized the work, we’ve laid the groundwork for future membership,” he said.

With the wind technicians now part of the 223 family and high contract standards in place, Ray looks forward to welcoming future members working in renewables: “There’s a lot of talk about green jobs, and what we showed with this contract is that green jobs can be good, family-supporting jobs.”