A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Media ignore effects AND causes of construction fatalities

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Feb. 20, 21 or 22

After a recent, rare getaway to New York City, where cranes and other signs of a construction boom were common throughout Manhattan, I read a report that revealed the price paid for building – and bossing.

The four-day trip included visits to the New York Times and the New York Public Library, a Broadway revival of “The Front Page” and lunch at the Algonquin Hotel – where the “Algonquin Round Table” decades ago hosted writers such as Charles MacArthur (who co-wrote “The Front Page”), Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross and Heywood Broun, the columnist who launched The Newspaper Guild labor union.

It was a sort of “literary/journalism” pilgrimage, except for attending “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and a stroll past Trump Tower, where protestors’ good humor helped shield the bad news from inside.

We avoided Wall Street like one would detour around polluted water, or some evil place possessed by manic, malicious fools.

Then a Times story about fatal accidents at New York’s construction sites brought home the disparity between the risks and rewards on Wall Street and where workers labor.

In the last two years, 47 construction workers suffered fatal injuries in New York City, according to its Department of Buildings, and though the number of building permits grew over that period, deadly accidents outpaced project growth. From 2013 through 2015 (the last year for which complete figures are available), permits went from 88,290 to 104,087 – a 17.9-percent increase. Fatal construction accidents then went from 17 to 25 – a 47-percent jump.

It’s not just New York. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent data on fatal work injuries in the United States in 2014 (issued last April) was 4,821, the highest annual total since 2008.

Deaths rose, but so did the Dow Jones Industrial Average, from 16,458.56 on Jan. 20, 2014, to 19,732.40 on Jan. 20, 2017 – a 19.9 percent increase.

“Some of the same factors that make Wall Streeters fabulously rich are making construction work tragically unsafe,” said Sam Pizzigati, author of the book “The Rich Don’t Always Win.”

Pizzigati fills in blanks in the news story. Fatal consequences are an effect of causes, mainly declining union representation and deregulation of government protections.

The total number of union members in both private and public sectors fell in 2016, the U.S. Labor Department says, and organized labor’s rate of representation – the percent of wage and salary workers who belonged to unions – was 10.7 percent last year, down 0.4 percentage point from 2015.

The number of wage and salary workers belonging to unions, at 14.6 million in 2016, declined by 240,000 from 2015. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers.

That fall is despite almost three out of five respondents in a Peter Hart Research Associates survey saying they’d join a union if they could, and despite BLS statistics showing union workers earning 25 percent more pay than non-union counterparts.

Why? Workers trying to unionize face a hostile legal environment and typically must cope with threats by anti-union bosses. Even if such intimidation violates federal law, there are few consequences to labor lawbreakers.

In the private sector, industries with the highest unionization rates are utilities (21.5 percent), transportation and warehousing (18.4 percent), telecommunications (14.6 percent), and construction (13.9 percent), BLS reports. Geographically, California has the most (2.6 million), followed by New York (1.9 million) and Illinois (800,000).

However, “fewer construction workers today carry union cards, and this declining union presence has severe consequences for safety,” Pizzigati said. “Construction unions have traditionally run well-regarded safety training programs, and they give individual workers the clout they need to challenge hazardous working conditions. Without unions, workers in construction regularly find themselves both inadequately trained and forced to labor in situations that could – and do – kill them.”

Besides an increasingly anti-union climate, government’s once-moderating influence has been debilitated. Regulations in general and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in particular have been weakened and look to lose even more under Republican control of all three branches of the federal government.

“The anti-government and anti-regulation hysteria of recent decades has left OSHA woefully understaffed,” Pizzigati said. “Chronic budget squeezes have trimmed the ranks of OSHA job-site inspectors down to about 2,200 – or approximately one compliance officer for every 59,000 American workers.”

Wall Street titans’ enormous pay is justified as rewards for the risks they take – a rationale ignored for workers risking their lives.

That’s news, in New York and everywhere.

[PICTURED: chart from the New York Department of Buildings.]

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