Michigan labor union membership fell sharply in 2014 as the effect of the state's right-to-work legislation — which ended compulsory union membership for many workers — helped bring the state to its lowest percentage of organized workers in more than a half-century.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday that the percentage of unionized workers nationwide fell from 11.3 percent in 2013 to 11.1 percent in 2014 — the lowest level since before the Great Depression. In Michigan, the decline was much steeper, dropping from 16.3 percent to 14.5 percent. In real numbers, the headcount of union members in Michigan fell by 48,000, even as the workforce grew by 44,000.

The full effect of Michigan's right-to-work law passed in 2012 hasn't been felt, but it was more dramatic in 2014. That's because the law didn't affect existing contracts — and many unions rushed to extend contracts before the law took effect in March 2013. In 2013, the percentage of union members fell modestly, by three-tenths of a percent.

Michigan fell last year to the 11th most-unionized state, down from seventh in 2013. As recently as 2003, Michigan had the third-highest percentage of union workers. A decade ago, 21.6 percent of workers in the Wolverine State claimed union membership.

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Separately Friday, the Labor Department said the number of workers in Michigan represented by a union — which includes those who aren't union members but are covered by a union contract — fell from 16.9 percent, or 656,000 workers in 2013, to 15.7 percent, or 631,000 in 2014.

Labor experts say the numbers show the right-to-work law clearly has had an impact — in part because the number of workers who are represented by unions fell much less than those who are actual members. Other factors include the steep decline in manufacturing in Michigan over the last decade, including the loss of many unionized factories.

'Unions are weaker'

Roland Zullo, an assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, said the impact of right-to-work legislation has been to weaken unions. "Unions are weaker because of the law, and some close down and/or new organizing stalls, and former members of unions choose to become free-riders — i.e., are covered but are not dues-payers," Zullo said.

He said the difference in the decline of members versus those covered likely was due mostly the new law.

United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams said Friday that on average, states with right-to-work laws have "$6,400 less in salary to union members, fewer benefits, less retirement and reduced consumer spending money. So the practical impact on Michigan's economy from today's numbers are that consumers have less money to spend in stores, with small businesses, and yes, even on cars."

Greg McNeilly, president of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group, said the drop in union membership was a sign that workers were exercising their choices. "As Michigan workers become aware of their rights, more and more are choosing freedom, opting out of their unions, and keeping dues money in their families' bank accounts, not their union bosses'."

A spokeswoman for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, Sara Wurfel, said right-to-work wasn't aimed at reducing membership.

"It was never about union membership numbers — in fact, it preserved the role of unions and collective bargaining. It was simply about (allowing) every worker to choose for themselves whether to join a union or not was right for and benefits them, and giving Michigan an additional tool to help ensure our state's economic competitiveness."

To date, 24 states have approved right-to-work legislation. Opponents say it is designed to weaken unions and allow workers to enjoy benefits of unionized contracts without paying dues.

The UAW will negotiate new contracts this year with Detroit's Big Three automakers. After the new contracts take effect, workers in Michigan will be able to leave the union if they want.

Full impact awaited

President Barack Obama said this week in his State of the Union address that boosting the middle class requires "laws that strengthen rather than weaken unions, and give workers a voice."

On Friday, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez echoed, "There is a direct link throughout American history between the strength of the middle class and the vitality of the labor movement. It's not a coincidence. When unions are strong, working families thrive, with wages and productivity rising in tandem. But when the percentage of people represented by unions is low, there is downward pressure on wages and the middle class takes it on the chin."

He cited the effort of the UAW to organize workers at Volkswagen AG's Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant through a German-style union called a works council. "Whether it's auto workers emulating the German works council model, or the dynamic movement of fast-food workers seeking a raise, or efforts by taxi drivers and home health care workers to stand up for their rights, we are seeing more people seeking creative ways to make their voices heard," Perez said.

F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the free-market Mackinac Center, said the full impact of right to work remains to be seen.

"Right-to-work still has not kicked in for many Michigan workers, most notably auto workers," he said. "As the contracts with the Big Three expire later this fall, tens of thousands of UAW autoworkers will be eligible for right-to-work. This includes many second-tier workers who are being paid far less than their co-workers because of UAW negotiated contracts. Past deals favoring older workers at the expense of new ones may come back to haunt the UAW when younger workers are able to choose whether or not to support a union that short-changed them."

Dale Belman, a Michigan State University professor of labor and industrial relations, cautioned that data on state fluctuations is based on a sampling of 60,000 U.S. households. He said right to work may be the driving factor behind the decline, but other reasons could account for much of the change, including a decline in public employment.

dshepardson@detroitnews.com

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