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Published: July, 2011; Vol 8, Num 2

 

Union Sector Safer Despite Right-to-Work Laws

As a union-affiliated health and safety fund, the LHSFNA believes that labor-management cooperation can make union worksites safer than non-union ones. New multivariate research offers strong confirmation.

In a recent examination of construction fatality rates in 50 states and the District of Columbia between 2001 and 2009, University of Michigan Research Scientist Roland Zullo found that “construction unionization is associated with lower industry and occupational fatality rates.” In addition, he discovered that “the positive effect that unions have on reducing fatalities appears to be stronger in states without RTW [right-to-work] laws.” The study looked at impacts of unionization across construction in general, not at impacts within particular construction trades, such as the Laborers.

While Zullo’s finding that higher levels of unionization equate with lower construction fatality rates is not surprising, no previous studies have provided documented evidence (a new study offers similar evidence for the mining industry).

Right-to-work states are in blue.

Zullo’s investigation of the effect of RTW laws on construction safety was also a first. The data showed that the existence of RTW laws depresses the impact that unionization has on fatality rates.

How does this occur?

Although RTW laws are often associated in the public’s mind with low rates of unionization, that is not always the case. Some states with relatively high rates of unionization also have RTW laws. These laws do not directly lower unionization. Rather, they deny unions the right to collect dues from workers of a union employer if they opt out of union membership. Zullo hypothesizes that RTW laws force unions to spend funds that would otherwise be devoted to safety training in efforts to collect dues from reluctant workers. In contrast, in states without RTW laws, union signatories routinely deduct dues from employee paychecks and send the funds to the union for its activities.

Drawing a parallel with the way governments provide services at no cost to members of society while paying for them through general taxes, Zullo refutes the anti-union message that closed shops are inherently unfair. “The existence of ‘free riders,’” he says, “reduces resources, causing the [union] to underperform in pursuing [safety] objectives.” The improved safety provided by unionization is a benefit that everyone in the workplace enjoys so, in the interest of fairness, it is right that all workers pay dues.

[Steve Clark]