Nearly a dozen early-career solar energy system installers are working to change the terms of their labor.
Graduates of a growing workforce development program created by Manhattan nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the installers’ struggle to find consistent work and fair pay prompted them to strike out on their own in 2019 and start a worker-owned cooperative.
The founders of Solar Uptown Now Services, known as S.U.N.S., hope to gain a foothold in the industry, not as temporary workers but as company owners, with a social justice brand that could eventually provide a competitive advantage. Through the cooperative model, they make decisions collectively, share administrative aspects of the business and plan to distribute profits equally.
The worker-owners come from neighborhoods that have endured environmental racism and poverty, and they say that participating in a worker-centered green economy is one path to empowering their community.
Members of S.U.N.S. started their own worker-owned solar panel cooperative installation business in 2019.
Photo by Percy Permeh-mann, courtesy of S.U.N.S.
“We realized that we were able to train our community to install solar [and that] could solve one of the [environmental justice] issues,” says Charles Callaway, a S.U.N.S. founding member and WE ACT’s director of workforce development.
S.U.N.S. is not the only entity trying an alternative labor model. Worker co-ops, which have existed in the U.S. since the late 19th century, are having a moment. According to a census done by Fifty by Fifty, a worker business ownership advocacy group, co-ops grew 30% between 2019 and 2021. Of hundreds of co-ops listed in the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives directory, eight are solar installation companies. These include Sustainergy, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based majority Black and brown owned-energy retrofit cooperative. Dozens more listed companies are construction firms.
But Callaway believes S.U.N.S. is the first exclusively minority and worker-owned solar company in the New York City metro area. Since its founding in 2019, the member owners, along with supplemental labor from WE ACT’s workforce program, have installed 18 MW of solar in the region.
S.U.N.S. is performing solar energy subcontracting work in the New York City area while it works to gain a general contracting license. WE ACT graduates have been hired to work on solar installations for companies such as G&S Solar, Croton Energy Group and Best Energy power.
Photo courtesy Charles Callaway
Pushing the Limits
After Superstorm Sandy in 2012, WE ACT relaunched and expanded its workforce program to help community members find jobs aligned with combating environmental injustice in northern Manhattan.
“The best equitable transition [for] people of color or disadvantaged communities is to really get on jobs and working on jobs where they can actually… get paid for the services,” Callaway says.
Rebranded WE ACT’s Green Institute in 2014, the nonprofit’s workforce program has trained more than 800 unemployed or underemployed northern Manhattan residents for careers in the construction industry by helping them obtain certificates for OSHA safety training, energy efficiency, solar photovoltaic installation, asbestos removal and flagging and scaffolding.
But placing their trainees in the solar sector was tougher. Many solar installation companies often only have a few full-time installers and rarely rehire temporary workers after a project finishes.
“We were sending people out to work and we didn't get a lot of those shots,” Callaway says. “Unfortunately, people hire who they know.”
G&S Solar, which has hired WE ACT graduates to help install 14 MW of solar installations, says it only hires day laborers. Its staff is mostly management. “The way we run [is] to keep overhead low, that's just the name of the game of solar,” says David Katz, firm senior director of renewables.
But the partnership has been fruitful for both groups. Katz says G&S Solar is open to the possibility of collaborating with S.U.N.S. on projects that S.U.N.S. sources. S.U.N.S. also has partnered with Croton Energy Group and Best Energy Power.
WE ACT has also been able to place graduates on mission-driven projects, like Community Power, which launched in 2019. The large-scale, multibuilding solar installation campaign on New York City Housing Authority building rooftops required a certain number of “workforce” hires. But similarly, this project did not yield permanent positions.
Callaway says “that's why it's important that S.U.N.S. was created, so that they can become more self-sufficient.”
Coming from neighborhoods that have endured environmental racism and poverty, the members of S.U.N.S. say participating in a worker-centered, green economy is one path to empowering their community.
Courtesy Charles Callaway
Jumping Off the Carousel
Construction workers across many sectors experience this risk and rhythm of temporary jobs and few-to-no benefits. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about half of construction workers had paid sick leave in 2019. In 2020, construction had the second highest proportion of temporary workers among the major industry sectors according to data from the Center for Construction Research and Training. Even labor unions—many of which have high barriers to entry—don’t always guarantee stable work.
“[You] typically work the job to be out of a job,” says Charles Bullock, a founding member of S.U.N.S. and a construction foreman. “And then start all over again.”
Callaway adds: Workers must "do that to get the work. You gotta start at the bottom.”
Callaway figured creating a cooperative could help WE ACT’s graduates learn business management skills and develop their own client base.
In 2018, Callaway invited 11 graduates, including Bullock, to participate in a five-month training with Green Worker Cooperatives—a cooperatively owned business itself—that supports entrepreneurs to develop worker-owned green businesses. By 2019, the group of 12 had written bylaws for S.U.N.S. The group currently consists of 10 member-owners who also work outside jobs. Callaway’s role is largely administrative.
S.U.N.S. says obtaining a general contractor license would pave the way to a Minority Business Enterprise designation and eliminate the need to work underneath another solar installer.
Courtesy Charles Callaway
“I consider myself a solar developer,” he says. “I'm the type of guy to ensure that S.U.N.S. gets contracts to actually work in the solar industry.”
S.U.N.S. is set to work on two affordable housing buildings in Manhattan, in partnership with Ascendant Neighborhood Development Corp. While the 42 kW project is modest, it’s the first job S.U.N.S. cultivated itself. S.U.N.S. also recently obtained installation work on 15 single-family and multifamily row houses in the Bronx.
But the company still faces several substantial obstacles to be self-sufficient, most importantly obtaining a general contractor license. Doing so would pave the way to a Minority Business Enterprise designation and eliminate the need to work underneath another solar installer.
In the meantime, S.U.N.S.'s small scale and its commitment to fair pay for workers has made it less competitive on certain projects. But founders hope to overcome that by aligning themselves with prospective clients who share their environmental and social justice values.
“This is a whole new system that we’re doing,” says Callaway, whose goal is to bring in $200,000 in revenue by the end of the year and “put solar on [affordable housing] buildings in the Bronx and Manhattan communities that we live in.”
For Bullock, the cooperative is all about community. “I would rather see my community happy and working [as] opposed to sad or depressed,” he says.