There Is Safety In A Union
In case there was any doubt, a recent study by researchers at the University of Maryland confirmed that unionized motor carriers are superior to nonunion carriers when it comes to safety performance on our nation’s roads and highways.
“Union membership has a statistically positive impact on both driver and vehicle safety performance,” the study found.
Led by Dr. Thomas M. Corsi and his colleagues at the UMD Robert H. Smith School of Business, the researchers looked at existing safety performance data for more than 150,000 interstate carriers to determine if there was any link between unionization and the safety performance of trucking companies.
“After reviewing a substantial amount of crash data and other safety performance indicators that were collected by the federal government, the researchers concluded that unionized motor carriers demonstrate better safety performance than their nonunion counterparts,” said LaMont Byrd, Director of the Teamsters Safety and Health Department.
While it’s not surprising that safety standards tend to be higher among union carriers, Dr. Corsi’s report is the first of its kind to look directly at the relationship between unionization and actual performance data.
In addition to reviewing records from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s SafeStat performance ranking system, the study examined health and safety provisions in Teamster master agreements with carriers like UPS and others covered in the National Master Freight Agreement.
The study has important implications for the trucking industry. Even though fatal motor carrier crashes have decreased over the last 12 years, accidents continue to have a serious impact on the business. And while the 1980 Motor Carrier Act led to a huge drop in union membership, the better safety performance of unionized carriers makes the case for why it is in the public interest to reverse deregulation.
Night and Day
Low rates of safety violations and crashes can be directly linked to collective bargaining. As the study noted, contract language typically requires compliance with government safety regulations related to equipment standards, driver safety, and hours-of-service regulations. Defining “workday” and “workweek” limitations in a union contract goes a long way in reducing the risks associated with driver fatigue.
Dr. Corsi’s research team confirmed what union truck drivers have known for a long time.
“It stands to reason,” said John Hasley, a 33-year veteran carhauler who has seen both sides of the industry. “Higher safety procedures secured and enforced by a contract means better safety performance.”
Hasley, who has since retired, worked as a nonunion owner-operator for several years before becoming a Teamster in 1978.
“The difference between professional and cut-rate carriers is night and day. With a union, the drivers are protected. They can say to the boss, ‘No, this equipment is not safe.’ Without the backing of a union, you could be fired for doing that.”
Of the 157,292 firms whose safety records were reviewed by Dr. Corsi and his colleagues, 78 were union carriers. They consistently had better scores than the non-union companies in data measuring unsafe driving, fatigued driving, driver fitness, vehicle maintenance and cargo securement.
According to the study, the difference can be attributed to formalized safety procedures written into collective bargaining agreements in the industry. For example, the national master agreement for UPS Teamsters prevents the company from requiring drivers to operate unsafe equipment, giving workers the right to refuse to drive a vehicle that is not up to government regulatory standards.
Workers are required to report all accidents and the employer is responsible for investigating reported accidents within a 20-day period.
“Drivers are on their own without a contract,” Hasley pointed out. “At union firms, you have more supervision and other folks checking equipment and making sure loads are secured properly.”
Better overall working conditions secured in a contract are another likely factor that raises safety performance among union carriers.
As Dr. Corsi’s team noted in their report, “Unionized motor carrier drivers contribute to, and help ensure, a more stable and structured working environment which, in turn, contributes to increasingly safe operations.”
Drivers protected by a union contract tend to enjoy better pay and benefits in addition to more regular hours. By contrast, nonunion drivers are more likely to experience dissatisfaction with their compensation and other workplace conditions, resulting in higher turnover rates for nonunion truckload carriers. And high turnover, the study observes, significantly impacts on-the-road safety as companies need to spend more money on recruitment and training instead of transportation safety.
The Union Difference
Dr. Corsi’s study is an academic validation of the union difference. And longtime drivers like Hasley are personal illustrations of that difference.
After more than three decades in the industry, Hasley says he is “living the dream” in retirement, enjoying his golden years at his lakeside home and spending afternoons on his boat. The safety protections that a union brings on the job contribute in no small way to the benefits of a healthy retirement.
“The fact is the companies always want to take shortcuts because of economics,” Hasley said. “The union is really a buffer against these companies’ desire to cut corners for profit. That means the drivers’ desire to ensure the safe delivery of goods is more of a priority. Workers and the public are better off because of that.”