Charleston Gazette-Mail Promotes Biased Anti-Labor Studies To Attack AFL-CIO Ads

An editorial published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail purporting to fact-check AFL-CIO radio ads targeting so-called “right-to-work” laws being pushed by West Virginia legislators identified no errors in the advertisements, but still attacked the labor union by promoting flawed and biased studies funded by anti-union donors.

The December 14 editorial was authored by the editorial board of the Charleston Daily Mail (in July the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette merged to form the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The paper retains two independent editorial boards).*

The editorial discussed a West Virginia radio network's decision to pull three AFL-CIO ads from its airwaves, which reportedly cited them as “inflammatory.” The editorial board claims the ads “mislead by quoting studies that don't necessarily address correlation and causation.” The editorial continues by juxtaposing the claims in the AFL-CIO ad with “conservative” studies in an attempt to prove the AFL-CIO's claims are flawed:

The 54 percent increase in injury and death statistic comes from a 2014 AFL-CIO report “Death on the job, the toll of neglect,” using Bureau of Labor statistics.

Yet a 2012 study by the conservative Meighen Institute suggests that union workplaces have more injuries than non-union workplaces. And a 2012 report from a Michigan group supporting right-to-work legislation cites a reduction in injuries and illnesses in Oklahoma over a 10-year period after right-to-work laws went into effect in 2001.

“It's true that right-to-work states have a greater incidence of fatal workplace injuries, but the very dangerous occupations are concentrated ... in occupations like farming, fishing and forestry regardless of whether the state has a right-to-work law,” the CAPCON report says.

The AFL-CIO says that right-to-work states have lower average wage rates. That too is true, but as Daily Mail columnist Laurie Lin covered last week, those states also generally have much lower cost-of-living rates.

“When adjusting for cost of living, workers in right-to-work states have 4.1 percent higher per-capita personal incomes than workers in non-right-to-work states,” reports the Mackinac Institute.

The editorial notes multiple times that the AFL-CIO's statements are true, even citing sources that back up the union's claims.

For example, the editorial cites “CAPCON” or Michigan Capitol Confidential -- an online outlet created by the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy to push the organization's studies -- agreeing with the AFL-CIO's argument that states with so-called “right-to-work” laws have higher incidences of fatal workplace injuries. CAPCON and the editorial noted that “It's true that right-to-work states have a greater incidence of fatal workplace injuries,” but caveat the fact by claiming these right-to-work states engage in more dangerous occupations without providing any evidence of the fact. The studies and reports cited by the editorial fail to adequately counter the claims made by the AFL-CIO, as neither of the sources cited by the paper address workplace fatalities in their data, except to agree with the AFL-CIO's argument that right-to-work states lag behind other states in terms of workplace safety.

The editorial also claimed that the AFL-CIO's contention that “right-to-work states have lower average wage rates [...] is true,” but defended the typically low wages of states with right-to-work laws by claiming that these states “generally have much lower cost-of-living rates.”

The AFL-CIO's claim of higher workplace fatalities in states with anti-union laws is backed up by several studies, including one published in the American Journal of Public Health, which found similarly that, “Higher rates of fatal occupational injury were associated with a state policy climate favoring business over labor.”

In addition, as a report in the Kennedy School Review notes, one study looking at unionization and coal mine safety from 1993 to 2010, found that “unionization predicted a substantial and significant decline in fatalities and traumatic injuries.” The report also notes that while unionization also coincided with an increase in injury reporting, the phenomenon is most likely due “to more stringent injury reporting practices in union versus non-union mines.” In essence, the Kennedy School Review found that injury reporting was held to higher standards after unionization, causing such reports to increase, while safety standards were also improved as a result of unionization, causing fatalities to decrease.

The AFL-CIO's claim that right-to-work states have lower average wages is also backed up by evidence, which contradicts the Mail's claim that incomes in states with restrictive union laws are higher after adjusting for cost-of-living. As the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) pointed out in an April 22 report, when accounting for a larger set of variables, not just cost-of-living differences, and “subject[ing] the results to a series of robustness tests,” the AFL-CIO claim holds true - “wages in RTW (right-to-work) states are 3.1 percent lower than those in non-RTW states.”

The Mail's failed attempt to discredit the AFL-CIO relied on a number of biased anti-union sources. The Mackinac Center, part of the conservative State Policy Network group of think tanks, has received millions of dollars from anti-union donors such as the DeVos family, the Walton family, and Donors Capital Fund -- the "dark money ATM" of the conservative movement funded in part by the anti-union Koch brothers. Lastly, as SourceWatch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy, explains, Michigan Capitol Confidential (CAPCON) “produces articles and blog posts intended to appear like those of traditional news sources, but with a demonstrated conservative bias and pushing a right wing agenda.”

*This piece has been updated throughout to clarify the relationship between the Charleston Gazette-Mail and its multiple editorial boards.