SolarWorld solar blog

Employee viewpoint on solar trade case

Posted 22 February 2012 12:00 AM by Amy Keiter, SolarWorld community relations manager

The SolarWorld-led trade case against government-sponsored solar manufacturers in China has generated daily headlines for four months now, as it has progressed through investigations of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. International Trade Commission. While details of the case are complex and the process looks muddy to those outside the small internal team managing the case, many of SolarWorld’s more than 1,100 employees are paying close attention.

“Our country needs a strong manufacturing base for us to continue our leadership in technology and innovation,” says Mike Rice, 59, production manager in SolarWorld’s crystal growing area. Calling himself “an old manufacturing guy,” Mike has worked in manufacturing for 36 years and developed strong opinions about trade with China.

Mike Rice, production manager in SolarWorld’s crystal growing area of solar panel manufacturing
Mike Rice, production manager in SolarWorld’s crystal growing area

Mike says he had raised the question of how SolarWorld would compete with the government of China when he interviewed with SolarWorld for his position in 2010. “I was told we have a solid business plan, we have great technology, and we have top-notch leadership. We can compete.” How does he feel about that answer two years later? “Frankly, this is the best-run plant I’ve ever worked in. I think we can compete with anybody – IF things are on the up and up. It’s hard to compete against the free capital that the Chinese government is providing.”

“If we don’t put a stake in the ground and ensure that everyone is abiding by international laws,” Mike says, “we won’t have a manufacturing industry in the U.S.” Mike recognizes that SolarWorld exposed itself to controversy by filing the trade case. “I’m glad we’re standing up for all-American manufacturing,” he says. “We’re doing the right thing by saying the Chinese government is breaking the law. We’re not asking for anything more than for everyone to follow established law.”

Eli Loehrke, 34, a wafering operator, has followed the trade case closely, too. “I have a Google alert for anything that has to do with SolarWorld,” he says. “If it’s about my job and my company, I want to know about it.”

Eli Loehrke - SolarWorld wafering operator
Eli Loehrke, SolarWorld wafering operator

Eli also believes that the decision to file a trade case was a good one: “Somebody had to do it. It’s not just the solar industry that has to compete with China. If we’re going to do manufacturing in this country, it had to be done.” Eli says he’s talked about the case with friends outside of SolarWorld. “No one I know thinks less of SolarWorld for doing it,” he says.

Asked about the trade case, accounts payable specialist Betty Winston, 42, says simply, “I’m proud of it.” For Betty, the case is personal. “I lost my job to China. I was a wave-solder operator with my previous employer. Management came to us in 2005 and told us we were going to be replaced by cheaper labor in China and we needed to train our replacements. I refused because I didn’t believe in it. If we’re going to sell it in America, we need to make it in America.”

The employer let Betty go. But thanks to federal aid for workers displaced by foreign competition, Betty received a grant for re-training and received an associate’s degree in accounting, which enabled her to get her SolarWorld job in December 2009.

Betty Winston SolarWorld accounts payable specialist
Betty Winston, SolarWorld accounts payable specialist

When Betty first learned about the problems in the solar market that the Chinese government’s subsidies were causing, she became fearful. “I thought I was going to lose my job again,” she says. But Betty says she felt relieved when the company’s leadership announced it would not stand silent in the face of illegal and unfair trade and instead would fight to rekindle growth in renewable-energy manufacturing and jobs.

“We’re all one people, whether we’re Chinese, German, or American,” she says. “ A fair, even playing field will help everyone.”