Right-to-work laws not only hurt labor unions financially, they also may jeopardize worker safety, says a University of Michigan researcher.
New research by Roland Zullo of the U-M Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy shows that right-to-work laws result in the underfunding of safety training and accident-prevention activities.
Right-to-work laws, which currently exist in 22 states, enable workers at union companies to forgo paying union dues if they object. These workers, however, still enjoy the same benefits and protections that dues-paying union members receive.
"Several states are currently considering adopting right-to-work laws, but passing these laws may have the unintended consequence of elevating workplace fatalities," Zullo said. "States attempting to reduce worker fatalities should consider encouraging trade union growth and repealing right-to-work laws."
Zullo examined construction industry and occupation fatality rates in all 50 states and the District of Columbia from 2001 to 2009. Industry fatality rates include people who are not usually members of the building trades, such as drivers, while occupation fatality rates include people in the building trades who are not employed in the construction industry, for example, local government.
He found that the rate of industry fatalities is 40 percent higher and the rate of occupational fatalities is 34 percent greater in right-to-work states. Zullo acknowledges that these numbers alone fall short of testing whether right-to-work laws are responsible for the relatively high fatality rates.
"Right-to-work laws are found predominantly in the southern and western United States, and it could be that other factors, such as geographic terrain, weather, and so forth, affect worker safety," he said. "Unions also have a stronger presence in non-right-to-work states."
Using statistical analysis, Zullo tested whether state-level unionization is related to industry or occupational fatality rates and, if so, the extent to which the association between unionization and fatalities relate to right-to-work laws.
According to the results, higher union density in a state equals higher worker safety, a finding consistent with the view that unions act to protect member safety. A 1 percent increase in union density equates with a 0.12 percent decline in the industry fatality ratio and a 0.22 percent decline in the ratio of occupation fatalities.
Although he found no direct association between right-to-work laws and industry and occupation fatalities, Zullo's findings suggest that the estimated effect union density has on reducing worker deaths does depend on state right-to-work laws. In states without such laws, a 1 percent increase in union density correlates with a 0.35 percent decline in the ratio of industry fatalities and a 0.58 percent drop in the occupation fatality ratio.
"Unions appear to have a positive role in reducing construction industry and occupation fatalities, but only in states without right-to-work laws," he said.
In non-right-to-work states, industry fatalities are 0.23 per thousand (0.22 per thousand for occupation fatalities) in states with low levels of union density and 0.16 per thousand (0.11 per thousand for occupation fatalities) in states with high union density. The industry fatality rates are relatively flat in right-to-work states, ranging from 0.20 per thousand in low union-density states (0.18 per thousand for occupation fatalities) to 0.18 per thousand (0.14 per thousand for occupation fatalities) in states with high levels of unions.
"In terms of work fatalities, the construction industry is among the most hazardous," Zullo said. "Labor unions in construction spend millions annually on safety training and accident prevention. Health and safety agendas are encouraged at the national level, but programs are predominantly funded and provided for at the state and local level. It therefore follows that if unions are located in right-to-work states, they will have fewer resources to devote to safety training and accident prevention.
"Overall, the results show that construction unionization is associated with lower industry and occupation fatality rates. Moreover, the positive effect that unions have on reducing fatalities appears to be stronger in states without right-to-work laws. These results call for policymakers to deliberate over the potential negative effect of right-to-work laws on worker health and safety."
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