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Michigan unions face new task: Getting dues

  • Article by: JOHN FLESHER
  • Associated Press
  • December 12, 2012 - 8:42 PM

LANSING, MICH. - Now that Michigan has become a right-to-work state, unions in that stronghold of organized labor 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 labor supporters, the Republican-controlled state House approved measures on 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.

Union leaders said it was too soon to predict how the laws would affect their membership and recruiting, partly because workers covered by existing 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 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.

Some may opt out

Mike Card said he would happily 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."

The law could hamper union efforts to organize new factories and other employers, said Kristin Dziczek, head of the labor 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.

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