Sabitoni’s Slippery Statistics to Justify Loose Rhetoric

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Laborer’s union organizer Michael Sabitoni throws out a curious statistic as part of his response in a Providence Journal article about the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s push to reduce licensing regulations:

Asked about the report, Michael Sabitoni, the president of the R.I. Building & Construction Trades Council, LIUNA said: “No one labor or business like onerous government regulation, but when it comes to workers health and safety the Rhode Island building trades and our signatory union contractors believe and support license requirements and regulated training and apprenticeship programs for our Industry.

“In fact collectively, the trades and our contractors invest and spend over $4 million of private industry money training and retraining our work force every year. This investment … has had a drastic impact on workplace fatalities in our state in the construction industry,” he said. His count: only 3 of the last 35 fatalities that have occurred in R I. from 1998-2013 were union construction workers; the others were non-union.

Note how irrelevant most of this response is.  First, the Center isn’t saying that there shouldn’t be any regulation or licensing, but that the state government should take care not to impose licenses that seem to have little justification but protectionism of established providers, limiting the ability of new competition in their markets.  (Clearly, that dynamic helps Sabitoni’s organization.)

Second, the Center’s related brief focuses on 102 low-to-average-income occupations that are licensed, most of which have nothing to do with construction.  Notably, hair braiding would seem to be a relatively safe occupation.  Rhode Island’s third-most-arduously licensed occupation is public school preschool teacher is one that only 15 states license and isn’t notably dangerous.  Similarly, Rhode Island has the most arduous licenses for non-instructional teaching assistants… among the mere five states that license the job.

Even taking Sabitoni’s bait, however, leaves plenty of room for argument.  Philosophically, it may be great that his union provides safety training, and construction workers should definitely have those services available to them if they want them, but why shouldn’t adults be able to balance risk and reward for themselves?  According to the state Department of Labor and Training, there are 18,100 construction workers in Rhode Island.  Taking Sabitoni’s numbers at face value, why shouldn’t they be able to decide that a 1 in 500 chance of a fatal accident over 16 years is worth the rewards?

But when it comes to unionization, we shouldn’t take Sabitoni’s numbers at face value.  First of all, only 21% of Rhode Island’s construction industry is unionized.  Moreover, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists only 13 deaths in the construction industry over that period.  (Sabitoni may be inflating the fatality numbers by including some related occupation that tends not to be unionized.) In other words, the three fatalities are almost exactly the proportion that one would expect by Sabitoni’s reckoning.

It’s quite a thing to accuse others of wanting people to die, as Sabitoni does later in the article.  If only our standards for political discourse required more than undefined numbers to justify that sort of rhetoric.  By the Sabitoni standard, one could just as easily point to the tragic story of Sandy Meadows to suggest that it’s actually Michael Sabitoni who wants people to die, and after a long period of poverty and suffering, at that.



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