The Biden administration is gearing up to turn the Gulf of Mexico, long a hub for offshore oil and gas drilling, into a new city of skyscraping offshore wind turbines. Opening up the Gulf to wind development is part of President Joe Biden’s goal to employ “tens of thousands of workers” to establish 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. But in Texas, workers are worried that the new industry will continue the low-wage, unsafe, exploitative conditions that pervade the construction and offshore oil industries there.

For the past year, a coalition of Texas labor unions, along with their allies in Congress and in the environmental movement, have been lobbying the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“We saw the opportunity,” said Bo Delp, the executive director of the Texas Climate Jobs Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the unionization of clean energy jobs. “But we also saw the danger.”

There’s no doubt the offshore wind industry will bring a flood of jobs to communities along the Gulf. There will be jobs manufacturing wind turbines, shipping them out to sea, and installing them; building transmission lines and electrical substations; and operating and maintaining the equipment. But contrary to the White House’s promise of “good-paying, union jobs,” there’s no guarantee they will come with decent wages, benefits, or safety standards — especially in Texas.

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“The lack of living wage requirements in the state, the lack of safety requirements, the lack of workers’ comp requirements, all point to an industry that has prioritized their bottom line,” Delp said. “It is unique, and so we believe the policy response must be unique as well.”

The BOEM is expected to issue a notice for the first offshore wind lease sale in the Gulf sometime in the next month, and the announcement will include the lease terms. Previous sales, like the recent auction in the New York Bight, have included terms requiring leaseholders to “make every reasonable effort to enter a project labor agreement.” A project labor agreement is a deal between a developer and local unions, prior to any hiring, that establishes wages, benefits, and other provisions, like health and safety protections, for all workers involved in a project. It does not require the developer to use union labor, but it does level the playing field for union workers to compete with non-union workers for the jobs — and sets higher labor standards for whoever is ultimately hired. 

The coalition in Texas wants the BOEM to go further than asking developers to “make every reasonable effort” and instead make project labor agreements a requirement. 

The argument is laid out in a letter that the Texas Climate Jobs Project, along with the Texas AFL-CIO and several other unions, sent to the BOEM in February. It cited data from research conducted by the Workers Defense Project, a Texas nonprofit that advocates for protections for workers in the construction industry, including surveys of Texas construction workers about wages and workplace safety. For example, a survey of more than 1,000 workers in the state found that 60 percent had never received basic safety training, and one in five had suffered from a workplace injury that required medical attention. Seventy-eight percent reported having no health insurance, and 60 percent were not covered by any workers’ compensation policy. Texas is the only state that does not require workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries. 

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The Workers Defense Project also found that more than one in five workers experienced wage theft at some point while working in Texas. When paid for their work, more than half received a rate that put them below the federal poverty line, and half of the workers surveyed reported not being paid a higher rate for overtime hours.

Federal data also illustrates the disparity in Texas compared with other states. While Texas has the most construction workers of any state, those workers earn some of the lowest annual mean wages of about $35,000 — just over half of what construction workers in New York make. Texas also has one of the lowest unionization rates in the country — only 3.8 percent of workers are union members, compared to 22 percent in New York, and 10 percent of workers nationwide. 

“Unions have been on the decline here for decades,” said Michael Mayer, a 28-year-old Houston-based electrician who belongs to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, or IBEW. Mayer sees a lot of possibility for the offshore wind industry both to produce low-carbon electricity and to reinvigorate organized labor in Texas. He said he’s seen firsthand how the construction culture there harms workers. Mayer works on big commercial projects, like hospitals and warehouses, and said that IBEW is often the only union represented. He said that other workers, like carpenters and sheetrock hangers, often make less money and face pressure from the contractors who hired them to work fast, even if it means sacrificing safety. 

“They are cutting corners, they work at a breakneck pace,” he said. “All that matters to the employer is getting things done as quickly as possible. Who cares if it’s not safe? Who cares if you have to go up on the scissor lift without a harness? Those kinds of employers just want to see profits at the end of the day.” 

So far, at least one of the offshore wind developers that purchased leases from the BOEM in the Northeast has followed the agency’s discretionary guidance. Ørsted, a Danish developer, entered a project labor agreement with the North American Building Trades Unions for its projects up and down the East Coast.

But Rick Levy, the president of the Texas AFL-CIO, said the state policy environment in Texas is very different from New York, for example, where Governor Kathy Hochul is a major supporter of unions and the state energy authority requires offshore developers to commit to project labor agreements in order to sell electricity into the state. “Our state government in Texas has not shown itself to be particularly receptive to issues of working people,” he said. “So it’s particularly important that the federal government make a strong statement in this lease.”

Unions tend to have strong representation in downstream oil and gas industries in Texas like refineries and pipeline construction. But they are almost entirely absent from the existing offshore industry in the Gulf, said Megan Milliken Biven, who worked for the BOEM for eight years and helped lay some of the groundwork for offshore wind leasing in the Gulf. Biven is now the founder of True Transition, a nonprofit that advocates for better working conditions for oil and gas workers today and clean jobs they can transition to in the future. 

Biven has not been directly involved in the Texas coalition, and she thinks the campaign to make project labor agreements mandatory should be extended to all offshore energy projects, including drilling — especially in light of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, which requires the government to continue selling oil leases in the Gulf for several more years. “If you want offshore wind jobs to be safe, you have to make sure all offshore jobs are safe,” she said. Biven argued that the BOEM has full latitude to attach as many restrictions and requirements to its leases as it wants. “This is a market they get to design and determine. I think there’s a lot of possibility to instill some responsibility back into the Gulf.”

When asked for comment on the coalition’s demands, a BOEM spokesperson said the agency “has authority to pursue novel lease stipulations for Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) and enhanced engagement for underserved communities” and pointed to the stipulations included in the New York Bight sale. They added that the agency is considering taking nonmonetary factors into account in future lease sales, such as rewarding bidders who plan to offer community benefits like funding to train local workers.

The BOEM’s lease terms are also not the only hope for higher labor standards. The Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed in August, created a hierarchy of tax credits for clean energy projects — including offshore wind — offering more money to companies that pay prevailing wages and hire workers from Department of Labor-registered apprenticeship programs.

Some members of the coalition in Texas see the campaign for good offshore wind jobs as a way to expand the horizons of the climate movement. The Sierra Club often clashes with oil and gas workers when the environmental group is fighting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Gulf. Dave Cortez, the director of Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter, said it’s important that the group be able to point to a vision for the future that those workers can be a part of. “The ultimate goal is to not fight with working people in working class communities,” he said. “It’s going to take all our constituencies working together to combat the climate crisis, and do it in a way that serves our communities — not just big corporations or those who have access to money.”