The law, which lets workers choose not to pay to the unions that bargain on their behalf, applies to labor contracts that are extended or renewed starting Thursday — meaning many employees will not be affected until existing collective bargaining agreements end.
"I've got a long way to go until I can exercise my right," said Terry Bowman, 47, who works on the line at a Ford Motor Co. plant in Ypsilanti.
Contracts between unions and Detroit automakers are effective until September 2015.
Bowman, who founded a group called Union Conservatives, said he is leaning toward ending his membership in the United Auto Workers — of which he has been a member since 1996 — unless it drops its "political agenda." He said there are many more blue-collar people like him, but they are scared to publicly support right-to-work because of pressure from union leaders after the law won quick approval in December 2012 from the GOP-led Legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Though Bowman does not expect a "mass exodus," he said some unions could lose a quarter of their membership.
Michigan, the 24th right-to-work state, has the nation's seventh-highest percentage of unionized workers. Peer pressure and tradition may go a long way to keep the larger, more established unions intact. The UAW, for example, has been intertwined in Michigan's culture of manufacturing cars and trucks for 77 years.
Neighboring Indiana enacted a right-to-work law in February 2012. The early results: Union membership declined to 9.1 percent of the workforce last year from 11.3 percent in 2011, according to federal statistics — a loss of 56,000 people. Most of Indiana's unions have not yet seen a big drop-off in membership, but many contracts are still in place from before the law took effect.
The declines may indicate more of a national trend, as membership across the U.S. has shrunk to its lowest levels since at least the 1930s — a paltry 6.6 percent in the private sector. In Michigan, union membership dropped to 16.6 percent from 17.5 percent a year earlier, a decline of 42,000.
"The labor movement has done a lot of great things for our country. It's not about being anti-union in my view. It's about being pro-worker," said Snyder, who contends more companies will consider moving to or expanding in Michigan because of the right-to-work law.
Staunch union members say the law has very little to do with economic development and is more about union-busting for political reasons.
"It's clear to me that right-to-work is not at all for labor," said Steven Strahle, a University of Michigan nurse in Ann Arbor.
He said there is no way he will leave his union, which he has been a part of since 1999. He said he previously worked as a nurse in a non-unionized workplace and worries the law will depress wages and benefits for the working class.
Having a union contract helped his "ability to be an advocate for your patient without any type of retribution, having a voice to provide the quality care that you want to give to your patient every day," said Strahle, 50.
He participated in a small, silent protest at the state Capitol on Thursday, 3 ½ months after thousands of chanting, whistle-blowing demonstrators thronged the building on the day right-to-work received final passage in the Legislature.
Union organizers asked people statewide to wear red to protest the law. Dozens did so at a morning rally outside the Detroit Athletic Club, where Snyder spoke at a "Pancakes & Politics" event.
Toting a "Snyder (equals) Snake" sign, 52-year-old Detroit resident Dwight Jarrett called on the governor to repeal the law.
"If he doesn't do the right thing, we'll make sure he's out in 2014," he said.
Multiple lawsuits have been filed to strike down the law. Legal challenges in neighboring Indiana have been unsuccessful. Snyder said Thursday that right-to-work is "done" and "over with."
Legal action also has been taken regarding the recent approval or consideration of lengthy contracts for employees of some of Michigan's public universities and school districts that will allow unions to keep collecting dues long after the right-to-work law is in effect. In response, House Republicans have initially approved budgets cutting state aid to schools and local governments that sign contracts that, in some cases, are 10 years long. Snyder and Senate leaders appear less open to the tactic.
The law cannot be overturned directly in a referendum, yet unions could decide to back a 2014 ballot measure that effectively overturns it. The law's backers expect that a ballot initiative is coming to coincide with the re-election bids of Snyder and GOP legislators next year.
"In all candor, March 28th is just another day leading up to the real showdown that will take place in November 2014," said Scott Hagerstrom, director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity-Michigan.
"Michigan could be big labor's last stand. If right-to-work can stand in Michigan, it can stand anywhere," he said.