Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Why Unions Keep the Workplace Safe

Nathan Newman is running a series this week on "Why Unions?" where he talks about "unions promote higher wages, a stronger economy, more progressive and democratic politics, and how unions have been key to fighting race and sex discrimination."

One issue he seems to be leaving out is how unions promote safer workplaces. If he wants more information on that, he need look no further than the Hazards site on the "union effect" on health and safety.

As the health and safety director for AFSCME, I got to witness "the union effect" first hand, from a better vantage point than most. About half of our members weren't covered by OSHA. A good number didn't even work in states where public employees had collective bargaining rights. So I got to witness workers with unions and OSHA, workers with unions, but without OSHA, workers without unions, but with OSHA and workers with nothing (no OSHA, no union).

The workers that were best at protecting their health and safety were those with an active, well educated health and safety committee, whether or not they were covered by OSHA, and whether or not they were covered by collective bargaining laws.

Organized workers, who know what hazards they are facing, who can document the problems in their workplace and back them up with some evidence, and -- most important -- who have the workforce behind them, willing to take collective action -- refusing to work, going to the press, informational picketing -- made the most progress against unsafe working conditions. It's great to have OSHA standards and OSHA enforcement to back you up. But without the union, and without an active health and safety committee, OSHA might as well be a town in Wisconsin for most workers.

You might also want to check out the Economic Policy Center's new publication How unions help all workers. Let me count the ways:
• Unions raise wages of unionized workers by roughly 20% and raise compensation, including both wages and benefits, by about 28%.

• Unions reduce wage inequality because they raise wages more for low- and middle-wage workers than for higher-wage workers, more for blue-collar than for white-collar workers, and more for workers who do not have a college degree.

• Strong unions set a pay standard that nonunion employers follow. For example, a high school graduate whose workplace is not unionized but whose industry is 25% unionized is paid 5% more than similar workers in less unionized industries.

• The impact of unions on total nonunion wages is almost as large as the impact on total union wages.

• The most sweeping advantage for unionized workers is in fringe benefits. Unionized workers are more likely than their nonunionized counterparts to receive paid leave, are approximately 18% to 28% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and are 23% to 54% more likely to be in employer-provided pension plans.

• Unionized workers receive more generous health benefits than nonunionized workers. They also pay 18% lower health care deductibles and a smaller share of the costs for family coverage. In retirement, unionized workers are 24% more likely to be covered by health insurance paid for by their employer.

• Unionized workers receive better pension plans. Not only are they more likely to have a guaranteed benefit in retirement, their employers contribute 28% more toward pensions.

• Unionized workers receive 26% more vacation time and 14% more total paid leave (vacations and holidays).

• Unions play a pivotal role both in securing legislated labor protections and rights such as safety and health, overtime, and family/medical leave and in enforcing those rights on the job. Because unionized workers are more informed, they are more likely to benefit from social insurance programs such as unemployment insurance and workers compensation. Unions are thus an intermediary institution that provides a necessary complement to legislated benefits and protections.
Regarding health and safety in particular, the report cites
two studies of OSHA and unions in the manufacturing and construction industries (1991a and 1991b), Weil found unions greatly improve OSHA enforcement. In the manufacturing industry, for example, the probability that OSHA inspections would be initiated by worker complaints was as much as 45% higher in unionized workplaces than in nonunion ones. Unionized establishments were also as much as 15% more likely to be the focus of programmed or targeted inspections in the manufacturing industry. In addition, Weil found that in unionized settings workers were much more likely to exercise their "walkaround" rights (accompanying an OSHA inspector to point out potential violations), inspections lasted longer, and penalties for noncompliance were greater. In the construction industry, Weil estimated that unions raise the probability of OSHA inspections by 10%.

In addition to the findings above, Weil notes that the union differential could be even larger if OSHA's resources were not so limited. He claims, "Implementation of OSHA seems highly dependent upon the presence of a union at the workplace" (Weil 1991a). Following the trend of declining unionization, OSHA claims have dropped from their peak in 1985 of over 71,500 and are currently at close to 37,500 (Siskind 2002; OSHA 2003).