With the strong push for more environmentally friendly energy sources, such as clean coal, solar, and wind, the topic of new energy technologies was more than a side note during the 2010 contract negotiations between the Michigan State Utility Workers Council (MSUWC) and their largest employer, Consumers Energy.
At the time, Consumers Energy’s existing coal-fired baseload generating fleet — averaging 50 years of age — was the oldest in the country and would eventually need to be replaced as they became costly and inefficient to maintain. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the MSUWC decided to ensure that the utility workers Consumers hired for work in new technologies were represented by, and belonged to, the union.
Side letter brings results
As a result, the 2010 – 2015 contract contained an attachment, overlooked by many, that committed Consumers Energy to staffing new generating assets such as clean coal, wind and solar, with a qualified, flexible and cost-effective workforce of UWUA members. At the time, many did not see the need or the benefit of securing such a commitment.
However, in the fall of 2010, Consumers Energy announced its plan for two wind generating farms, Lake Winds, a 100 megawatt farm on the west side
of Michigan, and Cross Winds, a 110 megawatt farm with a planned 100 megawatt expansion on the east side of the state. Construction of the Lake Winds farm began in 2011 with an anticipated plants completion in 2012.
Coal plants close
On December 16, 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the first-ever national standards to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants. The EPA’s plan would require states to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.
Shortly after the finalization of the new EPA rules, Consumers Energy announced plans to retire its seven oldest coal-fired generating plants by April 2016, marking a 32% reduction of the company’s generating fleet and a loss of 950 megawatts of generating capacity.
Union members in O&M
Because of the attachment to the 2010-2015 contract, the MSUWC was able to work with Consumers Energy during the wind farm construction phase to ensure that the future operation and maintenance of Lake Winds would be performed by UWUA members under a MSUWC contract.
Ultimately, the parties agreed that after a two-year warranty maintenance contract between Consumers and the wind farm contractor expired in December 2015, the Lake Winds operation and maintenance would be performed by members of the UWUA.
And on December 21, 2015, seven employees of the operating and maintenance contract provider were offered positions with Consumers Energy as Wind Farm Specialists, and, in a so-called Right-to-Work state, chose to join the UWUA.