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Michigan unions eye teachers' union as right-to-work law kicks in

DETROIT - SEPTEMBER 7: Striking Detroit public school teachers, students, and supporters protest in front of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center on day 12 of the Detroit teacher's strike September 7, 2006 in Detroit, Michigan. The strike of 7,000 teache
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Amid a backdrop of declining membership in U.S. unions, about three quarters of the 112,000 active educators and school workers in the Michigan Education Association can opt not to pay union membership dues.

Global competition and competition from right-to-work states in the U.S., along with a slow grinding economic recovery, are driving forces behind right-to-work legislation. Meanwhile, unions, struggling financially with declining membership dues, are feeling pressure to raise fees.

With the US economic recovery still in slow motion, many union workers see dispersing of union dues as a way to fatten their paychecks and to gain freedom at work. Also, unions in general are heavily politicized and typically donate campaign cash to Democrat candidates nationwide.

However, organized labor groups are doing what they can to hold onto as many members as they can even as right-to-work advocates run ads in support of ditching unions and taking home the extra pay.

A major drop off in membership this year would be a signal of increasingly hard times for Michigan unions.

Michigan, often referred to as "motor city," recently became a right-to-work state and union members were giving a 31-day window to decide if they want to remain in their unions or opt out. After August, union members are no longer required to pay union dues or belong to a union in order to work for the school system.

Many major unions, their workers subject to conditions of multi-year contracts, cannot opt-out until 2015 or later.

"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."

Should the teachers’ union lose a significant majority, or even a large minority of its membership, it would not bode well for Detroit’s three automakers' unions who have contracts running until September 2015.

Over the last two years, Republican-controlled legislatures in Michigan and Indiana have successfully passed laws making union membership and payment of required dues voluntary. Major unions across the country are watching Michigan as several Midwestern states consider similar legislation.

While proponents say right-to-work laws offer workers more freedom in job descriptions and curtail mandatory payments to highly politicized unions, opponents of right-to-work legislation say union representation is fundamental to job security and higher pay and benefits.

Further complicating matters for unions, foreign car manufacturers and aircraft manufacturers as well as other industries are increasingly inclined to open plants in one of the 24 right-to-work states.

As once powerful unions decline in membership, they are selling off vast resources in an attempt to stay relevant without increasing union dues on their members. Some political and financial analysts say it is only a matter of time before more U.S. states pass right to work legislation.

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