Roundtable: Offshore wind sector in the UK

At the end of March, the Just Transition Centre and the TUC organised a roundtable to promote a discussion among UK trade unions organising in energy and offshore oil and gas, as well as in (potential) supply chains including UK steel, and peer to peer learning with unions from the US (AFL-CIO), Norway (LO) and Denmark (FH).

The UK has the world’s second largest offshore wind installed capacity after China and has the world’s 1st in terms of project pipeline (i.e. capacity planned for building), followed by China and the US. Thus, positive policies and framework agreements for the sector and its supply chain in the UK can have a standard setting effect in other parts of the world as the big developers in this field are multinationals with a global presence.

However, despite some public investment by the UK government expected job creation has been lacklustre and there is no industrial strategy, whereas concerns about the quality of jobs in renewable industries have increased. The auction process and fragmented nature of the sector has made organising workers within it challenging, and existing energy companies with recognition agreements both in the country of origin as well as the UK have sometimes sought to exclude unions from their renewable divisions.

US unions have experienced a similar fragmented market, made worse by an anti-union attitude embedded in the laws and business culture. Unfortunately, many European companies operating in the US have quickly adopted this anti-union approach. Despite the challenging environment and the absence of sector bargaining, and with the help of unions from Denmark, U.S. construction unions have concluded a framework agreement with Ørsted, the world’s largest offshore wind developer. The framework agreement covers the construction phase of all of Ørsted’s offshore wind projects in the US, establishes joint training and ongoing discussions about the project pipeline, and requires a collective bargaining agreement for the construction phase of Ørsted’s US offshore wind projects. The actual collective bargaining agreements, which for construction in the U.S. are known as Project Labor Agreements, will be negotiated on a project-by-project basis in each state market.

Conversely, the picture in Norway and Denmark reflects less hostile industrial relations and benefits from recently elected progressive governments. In Norway, the government is working on an industrial plan for the energy and industrial sector and sees the huge potential for developing renewables: offshore wind will be the 2nd largest industry after oil and gas. Norway is also at the early stages of seabed mining and sea agriculture. Trade unions are involved in all of these processes.

Similarly, Denmark started developing windfarms since the late 1970s and renewables play a big role in the country’s energy mix. The port of Esbjerg for instance is Europe’s leading port for shipping offshore wind turbines and it has its own Offshore Academy, a new training programme designed to ensure that the required skills are available in Denmark when the installation of wind power will increase even more with the creation of the world’s first energy islands, which will be up and running in the next decade. It is estimated 120.000 new skilled jobs will be generated.

Unions will have other opportunities to explore concrete actions, like ports twinning arrangements, in follow up workshops, but their demands are clear already. Big offshore wind capacity is being installed both in the US and the UK, and the experience shows that the most successful projects are those where there has been considerable government intervention in terms of investment and regulatory powers. Unions everywhere want guarantees that this expansion in renewables leads to good jobs in construction, manufacturing, and maintenance, and that public money does not go to employers who do not respect labour standards.

Unions also want to build on the strong industrial relations that unions have at home with major Norwegian and Danish energy companies, as well as global ones, including their training arrangements. And in the UK in particular, unions want to prevent the newly created freeports from being used to undercut terms and conditions and want to secure access to organise in these companies’ offshore wind divisions. Working together unions stand a chance to getting these things.