Canadian Manufacturing

Right to work law takes effect in labour movement stronghold Mich.

State has U.S.'s seventh-highest percentage of unionized workers; becomes 24th right-to-work state



LANSING, Mich.—A right-to-work law is on the books in Michigan, a mainstay of organized labour, but those considering opting out of paying union dues will have to wait months or years to do so.

The law, which lets workers choose not to pay to the unions that bargain on their behalf, applies to labour contracts that are extended or renewed starting March 28, meaning many employees will not be affected until existing collective bargaining agreements end.

“I’ve got a long way to go until I can exercise my right,” said Terry Bowman, 47, who works on the line at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Contracts between unions and Detroit automakers are effective until September 2015.

Bowman, who founded a group called Union Conservatives, said he is leaning toward ending his membership in the United Auto Workers—of which he has been a member since 1996—unless it drops its “political agenda.”

He said there are many more blue-collar people like him, but they are scared to publicly support right-to-work because of pressure from union leaders after the law won quick approval in December from the GOP-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Though Bowman does not expect a “mass exodus,” he said some unions could lose a quarter of their membership.

Michigan, the 24th right-to-work state, has the nation’s seventh-highest percentage of unionized workers.

Peer pressure and tradition may go a long way to keep the larger, more established unions intact.

The UAW, for example, has been intertwined in Michigan’s culture of manufacturing cars and trucks for 77 years.

Neighbouring Indiana enacted a right-to-work law in February 2012.

The early results: Union membership declined to 9.1 per cent of the workforce last year from 11.3 per cent in 2011, according to federal statistics—a loss of 56,000 people.

Most of Indiana’s unions have not yet seen a big drop-off in membership, but many contracts are still in place from before the law took effect.

The declines may indicate more of a national trend, as membership across the U.S. has shrunk to its lowest levels since at least the 1930s—a paltry 6.6 per cent in the private sector.

In Michigan, union membership dropped to 16.6 per cent from 17.5 per cent a year earlier, a decline of 42,000.

“The labour movement has done a lot of great things for our country. It’s not about being anti-union in my view. It’s about being pro-worker,” said Snyder, who contends more companies will consider moving to or expanding in Michigan because of the right-to-work law.

Staunch union members say the law has very little to do with economic development and is more about union-busting for political reasons.

“It’s clear to me that right-to-work is not at all for labour,” said Steven Strahle, a University of Michigan nurse in Ann Arbor.

He said there is no way he will leave his union, which he has been a part of since 1999.

He said he previously worked as a nurse in a non-unionized workplace and worries the law will depress wages and benefits for the working class.

Having a union contract helped his “ability to be an advocate for your patient without any type of retribution, having a voice to provide the quality care that you want to give to your patient every day,” said Strahle, 50.

He participated in a small, silent protest at the state capitol on Thursday, just months after thousands of chanting, whistle-blowing demonstrators thronged the building on the day right-to-work received final passage in the Legislature.

Union organizers asked people statewide to wear red to protest the law.

Dozens did so at a morning rally outside the Detroit Athletic Club, where Snyder spoke at a “Pancakes & Politics” event.

Toting a “Snyder (equals) Snake” sign, 52-year-old Detroit resident Dwight Jarrett called on the governor to repeal the law.

“If he doesn’t do the right thing, we’ll make sure he’s out in 2014,” he said.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed to strike down the law.

Legal challenges in neighbouring Indiana have been unsuccessful.

Snyder said right-to-work is “done” and “over with.”

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