BY ANNE STANTON
---- — TRAVERSE CITY-- Area union leaders are heartened that very few members are calling for opt-out information now that Michigan is a right-to-work state.
But what will happen in the long-term remains to be seen, they said.
State "right-to-work" legislation, pushed through last week by Republicans during lame-duck legislative sessions, means nonunion employees no longer have to pay fees to unions that negotiate contracts and represent them.
Conservative commentators have linked the vote to November's ballot attempt to cement union rights in the state constitution. They contend the overwhelming vote against Proposition 2 gave Republican legislators and Governor Rick Snyder the green light to retaliate with the right-to-work bill.
Diana Ketola, a retired United Auto Workers representative, said she doesn't believe that's true.
"We knew if we didn't win the House, the Republicans were going to do this," she said. "That's why Proposition 2 was on the ballot."
Ketola said the Republicans jammed it through" because the bill wouldn't have been veto proof after Jan. 1, when Democrats will gain five seats in the state House. GOP legislators didn't want to risk a veto, since Snyder previously said that right-tow-work was not on his agenda, she said.
The right-to-work law will affect employees when current union contracts lapse; some are still years away. The law also carries a 90-day waiting period after the Legislature adjourns.
'Have to stand together'
Union office phones have been quiet since Gov. Rick Snyder signed the law on Dec. 11, said Corey Schichtel, a Traverse City Light & Power lineman and president of the Utility Workers Union of America Local No. 295.
"I've heard nothing but positive things after the fact," he said.
Thirty Light & Power union members pay dues of $24.50 per month. Schichtel is confident they will stick with the union when the contract ends in 2017 because it's a good bargain. They realize that linemen often suffered fatal accidents before unions came in, he said.
"We still have to stand together," he said.
Michigan employees have always had the choice to avoid union dues by agreeing to pay an agency fee, which covers negotiating and other costs. Only three employees of the 570-member Traverse City Education Association pay an agency fee and only one has called asking how to opt out of dues, said Mary McGee-Cullen, union president and reading specialist.
The law encourages freeloading by getting all the union benefits for free and that hurts unions and education in the long run, McGee-Cullen said. Moreover, she believes Republicans are twisting sentiment against public education and government workers.
"It's so disheartening," she said.
Bob Donick of Teamsters Local 214, has received only a handful of calls since Snyder signed the law.
"Some are saying, 'We know what unions have done for us. We're in for the long run.' Others say, 'I need money in my pocket'," said Donick, who represents about 180 workers from the City of Traverse City, Grand Traverse County and Antrim County.
There's been little action at Bay Area Transportation Authority, where 68 workers are represented by Teamsters, Local No. 214.
"I have had one employee come to me who has been anxiously awaiting the opportunity not to pay union dues," said Kelly Yaroch, BATA's director of human services.
Union dues in escrow
BATA Executive Director Tom Menzel said members can opt out of dues in 2017 when BATA's contract lapses. Otherwise, they would have to petition MERC/Bureau of Employment Relations, said Menzel, who also heard from one employee.
If there's legal uncertainty of the law in 2017, BATA likely will park union dues in an escrow account, he said.
Stephen Cousins, superintendent of Traverse City Area Public Schools, said he is extremely disappointed that legislators passed the law without public input, yet research shows that it will not affect student performance.
"I feel that our students got one of the worst lessons in democracy in the last 10 years," Cousins said.
Diana Ketola, a retired United Auto Workers representative, predicted the law will weaken unions in the long-term.
Snyder's previous statements that right-to-work wasn't part of his agenda proved deceptive, she said, and she accused Republicans of "slimy, good ole' boy" tactics that delivered a law with little public input.
"Call the Chamber of Commerce and ask them if you can join without paying a membership fee," she said.