Solar Tariffs: An Unlikely Opportunity for Worker Mobilization in Trump’s America

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Throughout the last year, our latest President has placed international trade at the forefront of his policy agenda with protectionist, manufacturing sector-focused tariffs across industries from solar to steel. While trade barriers are not uncommon, the latest set of drastic, comprehensive solar industry tariffs will destabilize more than just short-term foreign and economic policy. As it stands, they threaten to upend the future of solar residential technology in the United States and dissuade future investment in research and development. However, this crisis offers opportunities for political organization within the solar workforce, and negotiation between labor, firms, and elected representatives to construct just economic and climate policy beyond the scope of this existing trade crisis.  

The solar industry has a history of protection starting with the advent of Chinese-produced silicon photovoltaic cells (CSPV) that, beginning in 2010, flooded the international market to the point of overcapacity. This caused a tenuous balance of modest domestic tariffs followed by rapid Chinese capacity expansion, with domestic manufacturers scrambling to keep pace with increasingly inexpensive foreign products. Despite the decline of domestic manufacturing, consumers benefited from sustained price decline and access to residential green energy technology, while favorable domestic returns, particularly within the installation community, paved the way for industry development and innovation. Within the United States, a thriving new market emerged, dealing primarily in solar installation services and specialized skills for operations and maintenance. Due to the decrease in panel price, consumers found increasing access to green technology and consequently demanded a larger variety and quantity of installation and maintenance services. While manufacturing declined, the installation industry blossomed to the point that it now comprises 52 percent of the solar industry employment compared to 15 percent in manufacturing.

However, following the 2016 election, intra-industry tension came to a boiling point when SolarWorld and Suniva, two large multinational manufacturing companies, lobbied the administration for a new, comprehensive tariff on intermediate panel components to increase domestic price and maintain dwindling market share in the long term. This latest solar tariff is greater in scope than past protection, and employs protection under the seldom used 201 Safeguards Act on products from 163 countries, including US free trade partners, with effects of immediately eliminating 23,000 solar jobs and crushing market development for years to come. While manufacturing sector firms argue that the tariff will create growth to the tune of 140,000 jobs, they fail to notice the long term ramifications of tariffs for domestic demand and future green energy innovation. Long term, the Institute for Energy Research found price increases borne by consumers will unleash a decrease in domestic panel consumption and delay implementation and development of green technologies until at least 2023. From workers within the newly established installation industry to consumers of residential green technology, addressing this crisis will require collective political action and creation of new opportunities for workers at the intersection of manufacturing and solar.

In this current political climate -- marked by Republicans control of Congress, an authoritarian administration bent on unilateral action, and an unsteady future for solar energy -- political organization of the rapidly expanding labor force is more necessary than ever. Although coalitions of Republicans support tax credits for solar and have raised objections regarding this tariff, the party at-large is unsupportive of progressive climate- and labor-oriented policy, with solar reform primarily directed towards firm expansion, excluding labor interests. The question here, then, is how to engage the installation industry and its workers in the political debate surrounding federal and state climate policy and mobilize a coalition to counter anti-renewable Republicans and shape pro-solar policy from the ground up.  

The installation industry is widely dispersed across the nation with established clusters in pioneering states such as California and Arizona. However, over the last year, rich opportunities for growth and mobilization have emerged, particularly in the southeast and central US in states such as South Carolina, Alabama, Iowa, and Minnesota. Due to the extremely recent expansion of solar, these labor-oriented coalitions may not yet exist within installation, while increasing expansion of “right to work” laws in states such as Ohio and Missouri prevent union-based solutions to collective action. In these states, growth has outpaced the ability to hire skilled employees, leading to employee shortages and exhausting work hours, coupled with the corporate motivation to cut labor costs, as they comprise an increasing share of total consumer panel expenses.  Further, this sector primarily employs young men without bachelor’s degrees, with approximately 7 percent holding college degrees compared to a 21 percent industry average. Surveys also reveal that installation is one of the most rapidly diversifying sectors in a 73 percent caucasian industry, with 41 percent of employers involved in diversity recruitment. Organizing these workers, who are typically excluded from the Democratic party platform, enables development of sustainable jobs and labor reforms focused on uplifting the voices of young people of color, particularly in conservative southern states.

Labor forces in these new, emerging markets would benefit from collective organization and negotiation with industry firms to secure higher wages and bargain for hourly compensation focused on quality rather than quantity. While the installation industry has provided a rapid expansion of jobs, workers have been pressured to keep excessive, physically-exhausting hours and rapidly perform commission-based services to the detriment of long-term quality. Workers frequently experience stress-related injury with no corporate support, motivating them to leave for, ironically, more sustainable employment.

The high demand for skilled solar labor and shortage thereof provides an opportunity to forward just employer practices and construct a pro-labor domestic solar industry invested in sustainable human capital and innovative green technology. Installation firms depend on consistent employee productivity- and are consequently accountable to an organized working base with capacity to strike or take other forms of direct action against labor-constrained businesses. The working base also has the leverage and political traction to engage with Republican lawmakers on the Hill as they are bound to the economic conditions of their home states and needs of constituents. These workers, as constituents of conservative lawmakers in fledgling installation states, could organize both within their firms and directly vote for candidates pursuing their best labor interests, particularly as party-line fractures divide Republicans between moderate conservatives and the alt-right. Consequently, workers within the installation community hold political sway over job-oriented conservative leadership if organized and mobilized to action. Engaging both blue-collar workers with implementation of solar technology and progressive energy policy requires a ground-up approach beginning with organization at the level of installation industry workers. Through connecting workers with much needed resources for training, professional development and ultimately collective mobilization, the climate-oriented left can signal to workers that we’re on their side, and build a constituency to whom Republican representatives must answer and that Democratic leadership will seek.

Ultimately, state funding for training and human capital development and firm accountability to employees would better lay the groundwork for stable employment and a competitive domestic solar market, as well as a just, labor-oriented transition to large-scale green energy. Workers, if organized, have the political capital to push for support from firms, as well state and federal legislation if able to form a resilient political coalition. Grassroots organizers could work with installation employees and connect them with training and collective bargaining resources to create coalitions of skilled workers capable of securing just compensation and negotiating for pro-labor, pro-climate countermeasures against Trump’s tariffs. These community-focused solutions have potential to transform a crisis within the solar market into labor-oriented policy that leverages free-market economic interests and liberal goals of green energy expansion to the benefit of marginalized workers.

Ishana Ratan is a PhD student at UC Berkeley. Her research interests focus on trade barriers and their role in the rapidly globalizing international economic landscape. 

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