In December, the Michigan legislature passed and its Governor signed a right to work law. If there was ever a turning point in the demise of the post World War II social contract, this is certainly it. Of all places, the citadel of union strength and solidarity and the home of the United Automobile Workers becomes the 24th right to work state and sounded the death knell for the closed shop and the requirement for a worker to pay union dues to work. This event, following the federal appeals court validation of Wisconsin’s public union reforms, including limits on collective bargaining, is convincing evidence that the slow but inevitable dismantling of the 70-year social contract among big labor, big corporations, and big government is proceeding apace.
Both of these states and their workers should welcome this transition. According to the West Michigan Policy Forum, of the 10 states with the highest rates of personal income growth, eight are right to work states, and between 2000 and 2010, five million people moved from compulsory union states to right to work states. It is clear that, contrary to union dogma, right to work is empowering of workers.
Globalization of markets is the culprit, but globalization was and is inevitable, and the net benefits of free trade have been in evidence for at least a couple of centuries. The question is how do we deal with the new competitive environment. Fifty years ago the tickets to the American middle class were a high school diploma and a union card. No longer. Neither one of them work as well in a dynamic and globalized market for jobs.
Frankly, we don’t yet have an answer for the social contract redesign and the resulting anxiety of so many Americans whose future is threatened by the transformation currently underway. And the reason we don’t yet have the answer is because of the frustration in the reform of our public education system, which is mired in the antiquated delivery system of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the syndrome described by George W. Bush as the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. We are fast replacing middle-skilled jobs with higher-skilled jobs, but every one of the latter requires more rigorous education, and we simply are not preparing enough young people for these jobs.
There is an “expectations gap” here across the board in public education that must be rapidly closed if we are to have any hope of transitioning to the new social contract while being globally competitive and maintaining our standard of living.