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As negotiators for the United Auto Workers and Detroit automakers hammer out new contracts, something new is looming over the talks for the first time: UAW autoworkers in Michigan will have the right to withdraw from the union and stop paying dues after the current contracts expire.

Industry experts aren’t sure how many workers will opt to leave the union. They say what comes out of new contracts with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. likely will influence how many of the tens of thousands of UAW autoworkers leave the union.

The current contracts are set to expire Sept. 14, and many labor law experts say that’s when the workers can opt out. The UAW did not immediately comment.

Michigan passed right-to-work legislation in 2012 that went into effect in March 2013. The legislation forbids requiring workers to belong to and pay dues to a union; it leaves it up to workers to decide. The UAW contracts being negotiated now for the autoworkers are the first since Michigan became a right-to-work state.

“This is going to be a big battle in Michigan,” said Kristin Dziczek, director of the industry and labor at the Center for Automotive Research. “Last year, Michigan’s overall unionization rate fell dramatically.”

Although membership nationwide in the UAW grew 3.1 percent last year, the percentage of all Michigan workers in unions fell to 14.5 percent last year from 16.3 percent a year earlier. There are 25 right-to-work states. Among recent converts, Indiana enacted a right-to-work law in 2012; Wisconsin adopted a right-to-work law earlier this year.

Since this is the first time Big Three autoworkers have had the chance to opt out in the three states, industry and even union officials say it’s difficult to predict how many will withdraw. The UAW says in other right-to-work states, UAW membership levels have not dropped much — in some cases a percentage point or two.

Late last year, UAW President Dennis Williams said the union is working to communicate and educate members on union benefits.

Some organizations have been working to assist autoworkers who want to opt out. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Michigan, recently launched a website, www.uawoptout.com, that includes an opt-out form and information for UAW members considering it.

“We just want people to be aware of their options,” said F. Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center.

Dziczek said a big factor is the UAW’s second-tier workforce — those hired more recently, who are paid a lower hourly rate than veteran workers. Second-tier workers account for about 45 percent at Fiat Chrysler, 28 percent at Ford and 20 percent at GM.

“It also depends a lot on how second-tier feel on their connection to the union and what this contract brings,” Dziczek said, adding that some workers who feel they aren’t getting much out of dues may choose to opt-out.

Last year, the UAW increased dues 25 percent to help restore its strike fund.

Vernuccio said, “Members who are getting short-changed may likely question the value of their membership.”

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‘It’s all about freedom’

Still, some workers want to stop paying dues. One is Brian Pannebecker, an hourly employee at Ford’s Sterling Axle Plant in Sterling Heights.

“It’s all about freedom,” he said. “I should not be forced to join and financially support a third-party political organization in order to keep my job at Ford Motor Co.”

Pannebecker, upset over the dues hike and money that had been taken from the UAW’s strike fund to cover other expenses, resigned from the union a year ago — something workers already legally can do — and is paying an agency fee that represents about 65 percent of full UAW dues. That covers the cost of collective bargaining.

An attorney from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation this summer hosted two town hall meetings in Flint to explain how to resign from the union. A spokesman said more than 100 people attended.

The foundation has information — including sample resignation letters— on its website at www.nrtw.org. It plans to reach UAW members through social media and has posted a video on YouTube.

Foundation attorney Glenn Taubman said the organization believes federal and state law will allow UAW members in Michigan to resign and revoke paying dues immediately after the contract expires. Taubman said workers who want to opt out should send copies of their letter to the UAW International, their local union and employer.

“If any employees have a problem exercising these rights, we’d be happy to hear from them,” he said.

UAW membership grew 3.1 percent in 2014 to 403,466, though membership is down by tens of thousands from a decade ago. About 140,000 hourly union members are employed by Detroit automakers.

Those who might consider leaving the union are sure to face blowback on the assembly line. During the Labor Day parade Monday in Detroit, UAW Local 22 members who work at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant wore T-shirts with the slogan “It’s Wrong Not to Belong.” Second-tier Detroit-Hamtramck worker John Jablonski, 24, said he plans to stick with the UAW no matter what: “I will always pay my union dues.”

Some local unions in right-to-work states have listed non-members on their websites, and Dziczek said locals in Michigan do the same thing.

Ranks in U.S. rose in ’14

About 1 in 8 adults working in the U.S. belongs to a union, and 17 percent are in a household with at least one union member, according to Gallup Inc. Nationally, union membership rose in 2014 to about 14.6 million from 14.5 million in 2013.

Michigan’s union membership fell by about 48,000 in 2014.

The Michigan Education Association says it has lost about 5 percent of its members since 2012, partly attributable to right-to-work, said Doug Pratt, the MEA’s director of public affairs. Other factors include layoffs and school funding cuts, he said.

“That means the vast, vast, vast majority of our members are sticking around because they believe in what we do as an organization,” Pratt said.

The MEA allows members to resign only in August. Pratt declined to provide specifics on how many members left last month. The MEA’s membership, including retirees, is about 140,000, down from about 150,000 in 2012, Pratt said.

American Federation of Teachers Michigan President David Hecker said right-to-work has had a “very, very slight” impact on membership, though he did not provide figures. The union has 35,000 members including teachers, faculty, graduate employees and support staff.

Hecker said more members have become active in the union since right-to-work was enacted: “What the impact has been, is people being recommitted and re-energized because our members know there’s only one reason for right-to-work, which is to destroy the unions … and take away their voice.”

A recent Gallup poll found union approval ratings rose 5 percentage points to 58 percent over the past year, the highest point since 2008. The poll calculated its lowest union approval rating of 48 percent in 2009.

The survey found 37 percent want unions to have more influence, up from 25 percent in 2009. Support for unions is higher in the East and Midwest than it is in the West and South.

The research company has been tracking U.S. citizens’ thoughts on organized labor since 1936 when 72 percent of Americans approved of unions.

mburden@detroitnews.com

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