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NOVI, Mich. — Organized labor and pro-business groups are waging an intense lobbying campaign directed at school teachers who are deciding this month whether to remain in their union, in the first real test of the state’s new right-to-work law.
Many of the 112,000 active educators and school workers in the Michigan Education Association can now leave the union and stop paying fees under the law that took effect last year.
Other major unions, covered by multiyear contracts, won’t reach the opt-out point until 2015 or later.
With the teachers given a 31-day window in August to decide, representatives for the state’s largest public-sector union are imploring them to stay or risk losing their clout in how schools are operated.
“If I don’t stand up and stay in my union, then we don’t have a voice,” said Chandra Madafferi, a high school health teacher and president of a 400-member local in the Detroit suburb of Novi.
Meanwhile, conservative groups are running ads and publicizing the chance for teachers to “grow your paycheck and workplace freedom.”
A significant number of dropouts would deliver a financial blow to labor in a state where it has been historically dominant. Previously, employees in union-covered jobs were required to pay fees for bargaining and other services even if they didn’t want to belong.
“There is a lot at stake,” said Lee Adler, a lawyer who teaches labor issues at Cornell University and represents firefighters’ unions in New York.
Public-sector unions, he said, “don’t have a history of being able to do massive recruitment of members who will voluntarily pay dues.”
In the past two years, Republican-controlled legislatures in Michigan and Indiana have passed laws making union membership and dues voluntary, and other Midwestern states are considering the idea.
Proponents say the right-to-work laws, which are in effect in 24 states, help attract business.
But the impact is often difficult to determine.
Michigan’s law hasn’t yet affected the union representing the Detroit Three automakers’ employees, who have contracts running until September, 2015.
Organized labor, with 633,000 members, remains a powerful political force in Michigan. But unions’ share of the work force fell from 16.6 percent in 2012 to 16.3 percent in 2013.