Now that Michigan has become a right-to-work state, unions in this stronghold of organized labor confront a new and urgent problem: persuading members to continue paying for their services instead of taking them for free.
Brushing aside protests from thousands of labor supporters, the Republican-controlled state House approved measures Tuesday 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 persuading nonmembers 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 labor 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 this week said they would continue supporting their unions but feared that some co-workers would abandon them. Unions are required legally 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 happily would keep paying 4.5 percent 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.”
Legal challenges could raise more questions about the measures’ long-term impact. One such issue arose Wednesday 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.