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Southwest Minnesota construction unions push back on wind farm outsourcing

REGIONAL -- A project to construct 100 wind turbines near Ivanhoe has provoked outrage among construction unions representing workers in and around southwest Minnesota, who say the project is largely being done by employees outsourced from out-of...

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REGIONAL - A project to construct 100 wind turbines near Ivanhoe has provoked outrage among construction unions representing workers in and around southwest Minnesota, who say the project is largely being done by employees outsourced from out-of-state.

Like many union leaders before him, Will Thomssen, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 agent, wanted to see for himself. He traveled to Lincoln County to scour the license plates of workers’ cars and saw plenty of California, Texas, Oregon and Nebraska, but not much Minnesota blue.

It was a surprising sight for the former operating engineer, who got his start in construction in 1999, running a crane for some of Minnesota’s first wind turbine construction projects near Lake Benton.

“We have the expertise to do these wind projects,” Thomssen said. “We built the first wind farms in the state, so we have a lot of workers who know what they’re doing and would love to do this project.”

Project director EDF Renewable Energy selected Indiana contractor IEA to erect the turbines, rather than a local union contractor that has hired locally in the past, such as M.A. Mortenson.

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Nobody knows for sure how many local employees are on the project. Jinnie Hall, community relations manager for EDF, said the company does not have exact numbers yet, but estimated the number of local workers employed was somewhere in excess of 100. EDF has stated the project, dubbed Red Pine Wind, would employ somewhere around 350 employees total, giving it a ratio of about one local worker for every three.

Even with that ratio, union leaders are highly skeptical the number is that high. Kevin Pranis, marketing manager for LIUNA of Minnesota and North Dakota, said he doesn’t think the number of local workers is even close to 100.

“Based on what we’ve seen and the people we’ve talked to, including their workforce, our guess is that 10 percent are in-state workers and even fewer from southern Minnesota,” Pranis said. “If you want to see EDF’s real commitment to local jobs, just check the license plates in the laydown yard or ask your neighbors who they know that’s working on the project.”

Other union leaders have reported similar figures, and have heard back anecdotally from members who have expressed disappointment that they weren’t hired on for the project.

“We have members who have applied, that never got a return phone call,” said Stacey Karels, president of Mankato Building Trades. “Southwest Minnesota is full of wind farms, and a lot of those have been done with Minnesota contractors, with Minnesota workers, so this doesn’t make much sense."

A coalition of construction union leaders, Build Better Minnesota, has launched a campaign to encourage developers of renewable energy projects to commit to hiring Minnesota workers. Testimonies include workers from Worthington and Pipestone who were disappointed by EDF’s lack of local hiring - Pranis said workers will gladly commute 50 to 100 miles for a job.

The Red Pine project should be ready and operational by Dec. 31. There’s not much the coalition can do about the makeup of the project’s workforce now, but they want to make sure future projects are not done the same way.

“It’s really key moving forward, because the wind industry is going to have a huge surge between now and 2020,” Pranis said. “There’s a lot of projects in the pipeline, and people are trying to get them permitted to build them so they capture the full tax credit that expires in 2020.

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“That’s potentially a lot of jobs for local communities, but it all depends on contractors hiring locally,” Pranis added.

The Red Pine project received support of local people and municipalities, including the project’s 180 landowners, but Pranis argues they were deceived.

“Usually they get a lot of support from locals, because they’re told this will do a lot of great things for your community,” Pranis said. “But local officials need to ask where the jobs will be coming from. If they came and said it will create 300 jobs but most aren’t local, people would have a much different view of that project.”

There’s no doubt the project will benefit Ivanhoe and nearby towns by creating a new source of income for landowners, and more dollars for local businesses. But part of the goal of construction unions is to embolden the public to ask for more - to pressure public officials to only accept developers if they hire local residents.

“Wind is a local resource, it’s no different from having iron or copper deposits in the land,” Pranis said. “You can’t build a wind farm anywhere. Southwest Minnesota should be leveraging that resource - saying if you build here, you’re going to hire local people.”

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