Labor Unions Reduce Product Quality

A very nice paper in Management Science by Kini, Shen, Shenoy and Subramanian finds that labor unions reduce product quality. Two strengths of the paper. First, the authors have relatively objective measures of product quality from thousands of product recalls mandated by the FDA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration covering many different industries. Second the authors use 3 different methods. First, they find that unionized firms are more likely to have recalls than non-unionized firms (a simple difference in means subject to many potential cofounds but I still like to see the raw data), second they find that in a panel model with industry and year fixed effects and other controls that firms which are more unionized have a greater frequency of product recalls. Finally they find that firms where the union just barely won the vote are more likely to have subsequent product recalls than firms for which the union just barely lost the vote–a regression discontinuity study.

In this paper, we study the impact of labor unions on product quality failures. We use a product recall as our measure of quality failure because it is an objective metric that is applicable to a broad cross-section of industries. Our analysis employs a union panel setting and close union elections in a regression discontinuity design framework to overcome identification issues. In the panel regressions, we find that firms that are unionized and those that have higher unionization rates experience a greater frequency of quality failures. The results obtain even at a more granular establishment level in a subsample in which we can identify the manufacturing establishment associated with the recalled product. When comparing firms in close elections, we find that firms with close union wins are followed by significantly worse product quality outcomes than those with close union losses. These results are amplified in non–right-to-work states, where unions have a relatively greater influence on the workforce.

The authors put more weight on financial strains caused by unionization as a mechanism whereas my story would be that unionization prevents firms from disciplining shoddy workers and that leads to lower product quality. Note that my theory would also cover teachers unions which the author’s mechanism would not.

Hat tip: Luke Froeb.

Photo Credit: Joe Piette.

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