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.
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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 multi-year 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.
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"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 workforce fell from 16.6 percent in 2012 to 16.3 percent in 2013.
With contracts covering roughly three-quarters of the 1,100 school workers' bargaining units expiring, the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity bought a full-page ad in the Detroit Free Press with a form that teachers could send to their union to drop out. A free-market think tank has mailed reminder postcards about the Aug. 31 deadline.
"We are making sure that every eligible member who wants out of the union has the ability to do so," said Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center, which has worked in the Legislature to limit collective bargaining and promote charter schools.
Union officials charge that the group's "desperate" campaign is aimed at union busting, not worker freedom.
"This is an organization bent on the destruction of not just this union but frankly of the public education system we all believe in," said Doug Pratt, the state education association's director of member and political engagement.
About 1,500 members, or 1 percent, left the union last August during an early opt-out period that wasn't well known.
In Novi, Madafferi, 40, said she's worried that some younger teachers won't see the value of union membership. She said she has worked to explain the problem with "freeloading," or benefiting from union negotiations without paying dues. Members pay up to $640 annually to the state union and $182 to the National Education Association, along with local dues.
Novi special education teacher Susan Bank, 60, said she plans to save the money, having gone several years without a raise.
"What am I getting for the over $1,000 in union dues I'm paying?" Bank said. "Now that we have the new law, the rules of the game have changed."
Labor experts say Michigan unions will have to find other ways to demonstrate their value even though they still have collective bargaining power. In neighboring Wisconsin, more than one-third of teachers dropped their union membership after a 2011 law effectively ended collective bargaining for most public employees. But in right-to-work Alabama, nearly 80 percent of teachers voluntarily belong to the union and pay dues, said Adler.
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