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UAW unfazed by Michigan's new labor law

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DETROIT—Bob King, president of the United Auto Workers, expects few defections by his members when Michigan's right-to-work law takes effect in March.

Unionized workers at parts suppliers will be among the first to test Bob King's confidence. As supplier contracts with the UAW expire and are renewed or negotiated after the law takes effect, employees will be able to leave the union.

Contracts with the Detroit 3 expire in September 2015, so the law will have no impact on those plants until then. There's a provision in the law that prohibits the legislation from abrogating existing contracts.

King, who negotiated Detroit 3 contracts for about 115,000 auto workers last year, said the union is providing value to members, as evidenced by the fact that 90 percent of UAW-represented auto workers in right-to-work states have chosen to stay in the union. “We're going to continue doing the best job we can and be rewarded with the loyalty of the membership,” King said.

The UAW has about 151,000 members in Michigan at assembly and parts plants, public employers and other businesses. The union won't disclose how many are in the auto industry.

The legislation is a threat to the lifeblood of a union still trying to organize nonunion auto makers in the South.

For Detroit 3 auto workers, dues amount to two hours of wages per month, or about $600 per year.

Michigan became the 24th state to enact so-called right-to-work legislation. Under right-to-work, employees cannot be required to join a union, stay in a union or pay union dues at companies at which unions have won the right to bargain collectively for workers.

King said the UAW and other unions fought hard to prevent the legislation because right-to-work undermines wages and benefits and suppresses workplace democracy.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed the legislation after it was fast-tracked through the Republican-dominated state legislature in a matter of days, with no committee hearings, during a lame-duck session.

King said the best way to keep members from leaving the union is to bargain hard for wages and benefits and continue to represent worker interests in health, safety and work rules.

In addition to representing about 115,000 Detroit 3 auto workers across the country, the UAW represents tens of thousands of people employed by parts suppliers.

But as supplier contracts expire sooner and workers can choose to leave the union, the true value proposition of the UAW will be put to the test, said Neil De Koker, president of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association in suburban Detroit.