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Unions want share of green tech 'stimulus' jobs

A report released Thursday by labor groups calls for any stimulus subsidies to include "wage requirements" and a "prevailing wage policy" as well as an end to the practice of giving contracts to the lowest bidder.

WASHINGTON--The massive "stimulus" bill that's careening through the U.S. Congress spends billions of dollars in areas including green technology, energy research, and rural broadband.

Congressional leaders have made sure it comes with some strings attached. A "Buy American" requirement remains after the Senate failed to remove it by a 31-65 vote. Net neutrality rules for broadband spending is another condition that's been imposed.

But strikingly absent is one provision that unions would seem to naturally prefer: requirements that spending be directed at unionized firms, or at least focused on jobs with minimum hourly wages.

A report (PDF) released Thursday by labor groups called for any stimulus subsidies to include "wage requirements" and a "prevailing wage policy" as well as an end to the practice of giving contracts to the lowest bidder.

The report, commissioned by the the Sierra Club, Change to Win, the Laborers International Union of North America, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said that new jobs created through spending on "green" technology wouldn't meet their standards. It argues that wages at some renewable energy facilities don't compare to those at other durable goods manufacturing facilities.

A representative of the United Steelworkers of America told CNET News: "The stimulus need not necessarily have any 'mandatory' labor requirements, per se. That said, we believe the Buy American provisions are the absolute cornerstone of revitalizing American manufacturing."

Technology industry representatives expressed skepticism on Wednesday that union-backed demands like the "Buy American" requirements were wise. In addition, AT&T, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and others sent a letter to the Senate saying--in no uncertain terms--that the idea "will harm American workers."

Jared Bernstein, Vice President Joe Biden's economic policy adviser, said at a conference called Good Jobs Green Jobs that the economic package includes funding for the Green Jobs Act, which passed in 2007 without any appropriations, to provide "green" job training and apprenticeship programs. He said that such measures would "create a regime shift in the demand for jobs...potentially good jobs, union jobs, living wage employment."

However, while the House version of the "stimulus" bill included $500 million for the Green Jobs Act, the Senate version currently only includes $250 million.

"And it's probably under attack," said Chris Chafe, executive director of Change to Win, a coalition of various unions.

"To cut back on that means you're going to put taxpayer dollars into projects that will not create the best jobs for workers," he said. "It's great for the people in it for a couple years, but at the end of the day, if we don't have a career path attached to these jobs, we lose."

Chafe argued that training programs would not only give workers more stability but also make it easier for private firms to take over the "green" industry.

Some union leaders and venture capitalists said they'd like to find ways to work together. One benefit, according to two VCs on a panel, is that a well-trained, well-treated workforce creates a more authentically "green" company--and, subsequently, a better investment.

In labor-intensive infrastructure projects--which the VC firms said most of the green economy will consist of--"the cost of talent, the availability of talent is one of the unknowns," said Jeffrey King, the director of new product development for Pacific Crest Securities. "Investors, what they want more than anything else is information and predictability. Clearly, labor is one of the best sources of information."

"There's also a growing understanding of the power labor brings to the conversation," King said. "There are investors out there who do understand being at the table with labor in the policy conversation is going to be a lot more proactive than just complaining."

Innovation-based industries have not worked well with unions in the past. Of the brightest stars in the high-tech firmament--Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo--not one is unionized.

CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.