Why we voluntarily unionized our companies

Over the past two years both of us made the decision to organize our teams with local trades unions. We did this because we do not view unions as a problem to be managed but rather as an opportunity to be leveraged. Too often in the past 40 years, business development has become a race to the bottom, all about selling the cheapest goods and services for the cheapest prices and for the lowest-possible wages. We reject the notion that a good economy depends on low-paying jobs. Instead of building a better economy on the backs of workers, we want to partner with our team members to build the Appalachian economy with integrity and fairness.

In making this decision, we celebrated the remarkable history of unions in West Virginia. Our state has been at the vanguard of historic organizing efforts for generations. From the Mine Wars, to Teachers, to Factories, to Hospitals our people have fought hard for the respect, dignity, and justice unions offer working people. As we travel the country and advocate for our organizations, we’re disappointed to learn how few Americans know the labor history of our state. We hope our decision to unionize will inspire a recommitment to telling these vital stories of struggle and defiance.

We were both born and raised in West Virginia. We’ve been steeped in the beauty and history of these mountains and our people. The grit and grace of our people is a remarkable illustration of what our workforce has to offer. But there is no denying the pain and suffering of far too many friends, family, and neighbors we love. Many West Virginia workers have not been, and still are not adequately valued by their employers. We refuse to continue that trend.

Founded in 2010, Coalfield Development exists to diversify the region’s economy and create pathways to good paying careers for people who face barriers to employment. The new Appalachian economy that we are helping to rebuild, can’t just be about any kind of jobs, it needs to be about good paying jobs with benefits. Earlier this year, Coalfield followed through on an agreement years in the making. We joined the Carpenter’s Local 439, an umbrella union of the national Carpenters’ Union. Today, our organization is proud of that move and will guarantee our workers will always have a seat at the decision-making table.

Solar Holler made history as the first West Virginian solar company to become a benefit corporation, which legally commits us to putting our team members, the planet, and communities around Appalachia on an equal footing with profits. That commitment has come through at every step of our journey–from our earliest projects helping faith communities and nonprofits go solar, to paying for college degrees and opportunities for young people from coal communities.

So, in 2020, we voluntarily joined with the International Brotherhood of Electricians. By partnering with the IBEW, we continued the mission we’ve been on since the company’s founding–to create family-sustaining jobs in a world-changing industry. Our friends at IBEW were surprised by a management-led unionization effort, and we were thrilled to surprise in a good way. True to our Appalachian heritage, Solar Holler has never shied away from doing what’s rare or unusual.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1983 union jobs accounted for more than 20% of US workers. It is now just over 10% of the total workforce. And it’s no coincidence that an uptick in safety incidents, a decrease in jobs with benefits packages, and wages which fail to keep up with inflation have all corresponded with this reduction in union power.

As West Virginian CEOs, we know the journey towards making our state and lives better is a long one. We believe that the people wearing boots are the ones that bring our communities to life, and that our companies have a responsibility to honor and care for those who build and sustain our community. By voluntarily unionizing our companies, we are both very proud to play our part in achieving a more just Appalachia for our families, friends and neighbors.

Brandon Dennison is the Founder and CEO of Coalfield Development

Dan Conant is the Founder and CEO of Solar Holler

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