Union Bust image
UAW Local 259 and members of the community gathered to support laid-off EmPower Solar employees. (Photos courtesy of Lauren Feldman)

Bethpage Responds To Questionable Anti-Union Practices

“What’s disgusting? Union busting!” 

This was the cry which could be heard up and down Stewart Ave, where a passionate rally took place on Saturday, Jan. 6. Amidst cloudy skies and below-freezing temperatures, a crowd gathered to support 21 solar-installation employees of EmPower Solar who were recently laid off under questionable circumstances.  

Back in December, EmPower’s workforce voted 29-16 in favor of union representation. Shortly thereafter, 40 percent of the company’s employees were laid off, sparking accusations of union busting. On Jan.2 the union filed four charges with the National Labor Relations Board against EmPower.

In an opinion column submitted to Long Island Business News, UAW vice president Mike DiGiuseppe, alongside former EmPower employee Daniel Lozano, composed their case against EmPower. The column states that workers voted to unionize “because of [EmPower’s] labor practices,” among which “low-base wages” and a confusing, opaque bonus-structure were signaled out. 

In response, the company claimed that, “EmPower’s wages and benefits are competitive, there is upside mobility… If workers are unhappy, they are free to leave and join one of the other 100-plus solar companies operating in this territory that compete in a thriving marketplace.”

However, it has been hard for UAW and furloughed employees to reconcile the company’s decision to hire a firm notorious for union-busting. 

Chief executive and co-founder of EmPower, David Schieren, has made several statements against the accusations, claiming that the furlough of the 21 employees in December was unrelated to union busting tactics. Rather, he noted that the solar market has seen a downturn in recent months, and the layoffs reflect a quarterly decision the company makes based on interest rates, supply costs, and seasonal factors. “We are not anti-union,” he has stated repeatedly to several news sources.

These frustrations came to a head on Jan. 6 when the community rallied outside of EmPower’s offices against union busting. In attendance were fellow pro-union groups, including Jobs With Justice and the DSA, as well as State Senator Kevin Thomas. During the rally there was an open-mic session for attendees to speak their minds.

“This workforce has gone through a brutal anti-union campaign,” said UAW president Brian Schneck. “That workforce stood up, and won their election [to form a union] in a 2:1 vote. That workforce was then retaliated against, and told on December 29 that they were being laid off… We know what that means, it’s lipstick on a pig.”

 Senator Thomas, a long-time partner with UAW, also spoke. “I am so proud to stand with you all today and fight back against greed. EmPower Solar needs to treat their workers fairly. When all of us fight, we win! And this is what we will continue to do until we get what is fair, what is right.”

“This is America,” Thomas continued. “The middle class is made strong because of unions. They gave us fairer wages, they gave us the regulations which have helped keep workers safe.” 

EmPower’s furloughed employees also spoke at the rally, recalling the grueling work they experience as installers. “We’re up on roofs in 90-plus degree heat,” one employee said. “On days like that, a roof can reach a temperature of 150 degrees. That burns through shoes, it burns though clothes… I’m in my 20s, and I need physical therapy for my back… EmPower Solar does not respect what I have done for them, what my co workers, and fellow employees have done for them. Enough is enough.”

Schieren has stated that he is hopeful negotiations can commence soon, though EmPower has also filed a counter-charge against UAW alleging false and defamation claims about the company have been made, to the detriment of EmPower’s public image. Among these have been claims of false statements regarding employee wages.

While the union is open to negotiations, DiGiuseppe has cautioned, “[EmPower] cannot and will not bully us. These guys don’t know who they’re dealing with if they think we’ll be bullied, or let [workers] be bullied.” 

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