Washington — The percentage of Michigan workers in a union fell slightly in 2013 as the state adopted a right-to-work law that makes union membership optional — but the actual impact of the law so far is debatable.
Union membership in Michigan fell from 16.6 percent in 2012 to 16.3 percent last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday, continuing a decades-long decline.
The number of workers in unions in Michigan actually rose from 629,000 in 2012 to 633,000 in 2013, but the overall workforce in the state rose by 114,000 to 3.9 million.
U.S. union membership remained steady at 11.3 percent last year, the bureau said. Unions added 162,000 workers nationally to bring their rolls to 14.5 million.
The full effect of Michigan’s right-to-work law hasn’t been felt yet. The law didn’t affect existing contracts — and many unions rushed to extend contracts before the law took effect in late March.
Michigan still ranks seventh-highest in the nation in union membership. But the state has lost nearly a third of its union jobs since 2001, and union jobs have fallen faster than Michigan jobs as a whole.
Nationwide, union membership has been steadily falling for at least 30 years. In 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available, the union membership was 20.1 percent, and there were 17.7 million union workers, the bureau said.
Unions have been stymied in efforts to win approval of legislation in Congress that would make it easier to organize new members. Major unions like the United Auto Workers and International Brotherhood of Teamsters have made organizing new members a top priority.
Union membership has fallen most sharply in the private sector, where only 6.7 percent of workers are union members. By contrast, 35.3 percent of public-sector workers belong to unions.
Michigan’s right-to-work law will be an issue in this year’s elections.
The national AFL-CIO said in August it was targeting six Republican governors, including Michigan’s Rick Snyder, for defeat. It said it would spend less time and money on key U.S. Senate races because they are in states where unions don’t have a strong presence. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer has said he’ll use Snyder’s signing of the right-to-work law and the plight of Detroit pensioners to paint the governor as a friend of big banks and unconcerned about working-class people.
Since right to work took effect nearly 10 months ago, Snyder has rarely talked about it in public. Though he cited the economic benefits of the law, the governor steers clear of questions about how many jobs it has created.
Bill Ballenger, an editor of Inside Michigan Politics, questions whether the right-to-work issue will motivate some voters to go to the polls who would otherwise sit out the midterm election. And he believes it’s “way too early to assess the impact of right to work” on union membership: “I think it’s going to take, frankly, years to know the true impact.”
The Michigan AFL-CIO on Friday praised the increase in union membership in the state. “In spite of repeated attacks on working people and their right to organize by Gov. Snyder and Republicans in the statehouse, Michigan workers recognize the value of union membership,” said Michigan State AFL-CIO President Karla Swift.
Earlier this month, United Auto Workers President Bob King said 2013 membership figures, to be released in a couple of months, will show incremental growth. UAW membership has plummeted over the last three decades.
Cliff Hammond, a Detroit labor lawyer who now represents management but previously was labor counsel for the largest local union in Michigan — the Service Employees International Union Local 79 — said both pro- and anti-union members can find something to cheer in the latest numbers.
“Ultimately, it’s probably something where you can take a glass half-full from either side,” Hammond said, who added right-to-work advocates can point to the overall growth of the economy — and to the fact that nonunion job growth outpaced union job growth.
But he noted 2013 is just the third year since 2003 in which union membership has increased.
“They have weathered the storm,” Hammond said. “They aren’t doing somersaults or high-fives.”
Hammond said it is hard to quantify the impact of right to work, since so many contracts were extended before the law took effect in March. “At least (right to work) wasn’t the death knell everybody thought it was,” Hammond said. “It’s still early to tell, but right to work has not stopped the growth of union jobs.”