Photovoltaic: A labor dispute in the green economy

Jose Radzinsky set out in late 2008 to create what he saw as a much needed apprentice program for the Silicon Valley: photovoltaic installers.  What he got instead is a legal battle with labor unions jockeying for control of apprenticeship education.

Radzinsky, owner of Renewable Power Solutions Inc, a solar installation company in the Silicon Valley, saw his industry in need of a proper training program.  “I wanted to give my employees an opportunity to better themselves in a developing industry,” Radzinsky said.  

“There was no other program like mine out there when I started.  There were programs that cover roofing, plumbing, electrical, but not solar.  Solar instillation is a multi-class industry.  You need training from all different fields and there’s nothing right now that covers all of them.”  

Radzinsky then developed a two-year apprenticeship program and submitted it for approval from the California Apprenticeship Council (CAC) in late 2008.  He was approved to train photovoltaic installers in March 2009.  

But the program generated controversy.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) has called Radzinsky’s program into question.  The union filed appeals to reverse the CAC decision, citing the legislation that authorized the apprenticeship program, AB 921.

Enacted by Gray Davis in 1999, AB 921 by former Assemblyman Fred Keeley of Santa Cruz, allows unions to veto apprenticeship programs if they can show the service is already being provided.  

While IBEW believes that it provides sufficient solar training for its apprentices, Radzinsky would disagree.  Since his program went on hold, Radzinsky has to go to IBEW for apprentices and he contends that what he gets is woefully inadequate. “They only know one skill, like electrical. I end up needing multiple people to finish a job one of my apprentices could do.”

Now the electrical union challenging Radzinsky has itself been challenged by roofers, laborers, sheet metal workers, and plumbers’ unions for the rights to teach solar apprenticeships, which they contain falls within their jurisdiction.   AB 921 gives them the legal authority to challenge each other — and Radzinsky.

But the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employment and Labor Services (OATELS), responsible for regulating apprenticeship standards, saw this  “needs test” as failing to meet federal standards.

OATELS can choose to recognize, or also derecognize, a “State Apprenticeship Agency or Council” (SAC) to approve apprenticeships.  

The California Department of Industrial Relations (CDIR) and the California Apprenticeship Council (CAC) were recognized as SAC’s in 1978.  But in 1999 with AB 921, California reformed its apprenticeship law and OATELS saw the statute as no longer meeting federal requirements.  

In 2005 a U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge ruled to allow OATELS to “derecognize” CDIR and CAC authority to approve apprenticeship projects.  

The decision noted that the “needs test” in the California Labor Code used by unions to prevent new or expanded apprenticeship programs “does not promote competition among programs, does not consider the needs of individuals seeking apprenticeship training, and limits training opportunities for apprentices.”

As for Radzinsky, within the next month the CAC will be hearing the appeal of the unions and make a decision to allow or dissolve his solar apprenticeship program.

He’s got his fingers crossed.

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