Op-Ed | Union labor will help lead New York’s transition to clean energy

Wind turbine in a wild meadow
Photo via Getty Images

As extreme weather patterns become a common occurrence, and sea levels and greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise alarmingly, New York State has rightly acknowledged the urgency of the climate crisis during its latest legislative session. This was reflected in the $220 billion state budget passed this year, which focused on improving the environment, creating greener and more resilient infrastructure, and transitioning to a zero-emission electricity sector by 2040. 

The climate crisis is serving as a wake-up call for all of us, including the construction industry. We must innovate how we construct physical infrastructure in New York so that our state is resilient to our changing climate and environmentally sustainable for future generations. The best people for this new front in construction are the experts in their crafts: union workers and union contractors.

The unionized construction industry is stepping up to this challenge already, with many unions coming together to form the Climate Jobs New York Coalition to build a clean energy economy at the scale that climate science demands, with good-paying union jobs. With top-of-the-line training programs, our state’s unions are well-poised to ensure a smooth transition to a sustainable future.

Yet, often overlooked are the Finishing Trades, who play a critical role in ensuring such a transition. We are the commercial and industrial painters, drywall finishers, glaziers, and window film installers who put the final layer on critical sustainable infrastructure projects and retrofit existing buildings to become more energy efficient. 

At District Council 9 and the Finishing Trades Institute of New York, we designed a specialized training program to ensure our members are trained to apply coatings to the components of wind turbines from the manufacturing phase through construction and ongoing maintenance to be durable against inclement weather and seawater, while prioritizing safety when facing the unique challenges of onshore and offshore wind construction. As a result, turbines will be in service longer, saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Our contractors are equipped and our members are trained and certified in the latest standards used to coat existing physical infrastructure – including bridges, water tanks, elevated train lines, and more – to make them resistant to weather damage and corrosion. Measures like these have become even more necessary in the face of aging infrastructure and increasingly frequent extreme weather patterns and natural disasters.

For Finishing Trades workers, retrofitting existing buildings is another tactic utilized to combat climate change by increasing sustainability through decarbonization. When looking to preserve historic buildings in New York, upgrading finishes is one of the most productive and feasible ways to make them energy efficient. Our unionized workforce repairs and paints walls using low VOC coatings, remediates lead and mold to improve air quality, applies specialty coatings and sealants to weatherize buildings, upgrades building envelopes by installing high-efficiency windows and doors, and applies window film and coats rooves to reflect solar heat. 

Investing in clean energy in New York State will stimulate the economy through the creation of family-sustaining jobs that build pathways to the middle class. Contracting with unions and union contractors to do them will ensure that New York’s energy transition is swift and well-executed.

New York State’s unionized workforce is ushering the State into a more sustainable future. The Finishing Trades are an indispensable part of the innovative construction work needed to build our defense against climate change and transition to a clean energy future. At this crucial time, union workers from all sectors of construction are ready to step up.

Joe Azzopardi is the Business Manager / Secretary Treasurer of District Council 9 in New York, a chapter of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades.