LANSING, Mich.—Now that Michigan has become a right-to-work state, unions in this stronghold of organized labour confront a new and urgent problem: convincing members to continue paying for their services instead of taking them for free.
Brushing aside protests from thousands of labour supporters, the Republican-controlled state House approved measures making it illegal to require that nonunion workers pay fees to unions for negotiating wage contracts and other services.
The Senate did likewise last week, and Gov. Rick Snyder swiftly signed the bills into law.
The laws take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns this month, giving unions little time to devise a strategy for keeping members on board and convincing non-members to continue their financial support.
Union leaders said it was too soon to predict how the laws would affect their membership and recruiting, partly because workers covered by existing labour contracts won’t be able to stop paying union fees until those deals lapse—which in some cases will take several years.
Contracts between unions and Detroit automakers, for example, are effective until September 2015.
Many of the activists who protested at the Capitol said they would continue supporting their unions but feared that some co-workers would abandon them.
Unions are legally required to represent all employees of a business equally, whether they’re members or not.
“In our plant, it could pit worker against worker,” said Brett Brown, who works in the trim department at a General Motors plant in Lansing.
Unions will lose money serving workers who refuse to contribute, making it harder for them to function, he said.
Mike Card said he would happily keep paying 4.5 per cent of his hourly wages to be part of Boilermakers Local 169 in Allen Park because the organization protects him from losing his job to a younger person who will accept lower pay.
“Definitely among the members you’re going to have resentment” of those who opt out, he said.
After signing the bills, Snyder said unions should redouble their efforts to show workers that membership is worth the money.
But experience shows that some workers won’t pay even the best-managed union unless it’s required.
“Some will say, ‘If I don’t have to pay, why should I pay?'” said Robert McCormick, a law professor at Michigan State University and former National Labor Relations Board attorney. “The more people do that, the less revenue comes into the union, and it gets weaker.”
In Indiana, where right-to-work legislation was enacted earlier this year, most unions have not yet seen a drop-off in membership.
But many contracts are still in place from before the law took effect.
“It’s not like there’s some cliff you fall off. It’s not one day you have a union, the next day half the people drop out,” said Jim Robinson, director of United Steelworkers District 7, which covers Indiana.
He said labour leaders there are consulting with counterparts in Southern states, where right-to-work laws have been common for years.
Robinson said he has directed his organizers and representatives to continue attentiveness to worker needs to keep membership up.
Right-to-work “encourages a culture of freeloading, and you have to really be vigilant that culture doesn’t get started,” he said.
The law could hamper union efforts to organize new factories and other employers, said Kristin Dziczek, head of the labour and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.
Auto-parts manufacturers, which generally pay lower wages than the big vehicle-manufacturing companies such as GM and Ford, might see union membership decline.
Legal challenges could raise more questions about the measures’ long-term impact.
One such issue arose soon after the laws were passed, as a member of the Michigan Civil Service Commission said the Legislature had no authority to impose right-to-work policies on most state government workers.
The state constitution puts the commission in charge of such matters, said Robert Swanson, one of four members of the panel, who are appointed by the governor.
A spokeswoman for Snyder disagreed, insisting the laws apply to all public employees.
The right-to-work law already exempts police and firefighters because they are covered by an existing law requiring that their labour disputes be settled through binding arbitration.
Peer pressure and tradition may go a long way to keep larger, more established unions intact.
The United Auto Workers (UAW), for example, has been intertwined in Michigan’s tight culture of manufacturing cars and trucks for 77 years.
At most auto plants, the union does more than just bargain for wages.
It’s a brotherhood that holds social and charitable events at union halls and organizes motorcycle rides and bus trips to baseball games and amusement parks.
The halls are also sites for weddings and other celebrations, and where retirees gather to talk about old times.
Simply put, a worker who shuns the union could be ostracized.
For those reasons, the UAW has seen only a few people opt out of joining the union at GM factories, even in states that have had right-to-work laws for a long time.
At GM’s factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., only eight of the 1,650 blue-collar workers have rejected union membership.
GM has hired more than 220 new workers at the plant and all have joined, UAW spokeswoman Michele Martin said.
Fewer than a dozen of the 3,200 workers at a huge GM SUV plant in Arlington, Texas, haven’t joined, said Mike Cartwright, president of UAW Local 276.
“No one wants to be a free rider,” said Cartwright, who helps to sell the union to every new worker at the factory that opened in 1954. “We do a pretty good job of explaining the big picture. It doesn’t hurt the company. We support the company.”
If anything, the right-to-work fight has boosted members’ appreciation of their unions, said George McGregor, president of UAW Local 22 in Detroit.
“This is the best organizing tool that we will ever have,” McGregor said.
—Associated Press writers Tom Krisher in Detroit, Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis and Todd Richmond in Lansing contributed to this story