Wisconsin reveals class war between 'have-nots' and 'have yours' 

As public-sector unions protest over cuts to their taxpayer-funded benefits in Wisconsin, James Poulos offers an insight so simple and so insightful, it's been bouncing around in my head all day:

As talk turns to the 'new class war', the concept of a class defined not so much by its net worth or tax bracket as by its economic (and therefore political) dependence on government will sharpen step for step with the reality of this class, which will be hitting home in all its gruesome implications for those outside and inside it.

...

Anyone who responds to the current crisis by anointing unionized employees of the government as the epitome of 'the working man' is placing themselves, and I really do not say this lightly, at the mercy of socialism -- not just as an intellectual theory, but as an emotional promise of happiness. There has never been a viable, durable Labor Party in the US. But neither has the government class ever been so big or faced such an existential threat.

It's important to say that the concept is sharpening only now because public-sector unions have been a sleeper issue for years during which economic times were good (and there weren't as many public-sector union members). Combine these three factors:

  1. Unions have represented more than a third of the public-sector workforce since the late 1970s;
  2. The public sector has expanded substantially as a portion of the American economy over the last 30 years;
  3. Union membership in the private sector has decreased sharply, going from one-in-five union membership in the private sector during the 1970s to about one-in-13 or worse.

Unions have come to rely on the public sector because government employees are easier to organize, and managers less resistent. Who's going to put up a fight over an organizing campaign with a politically active union when taxpayers are paying the bill? If the union wants nicer benefits, it's easy to cave in, tax dollars and budgets be damned. It's good for campaign coffers.

That mentality may have worked during a boom period, but it doesn't work in a bust when unemployment is rampant and the contrasts between haves and have nots are clear. Being a Wall Street banker may have some whiff of sin to the working man, but the loathsome element isn't merely the wealth of the AIG or Goldman Sachs executive, but that it has been compensated with taxpayer subsidies when taxpayers themselves are struggling to make ends meet. It's not so much about haves and have nots. It's about haves and have yours.

Taxpayers are becoming acutely aware of the have-yours as a class -- something like Angelo Codevilla's ruling class -- whose gains in salaries and benefits aren't associated with harder work and important innovations but political access. Public-sector unions rallying in Madison aren't even taking a hit for their political activism, given that their protest is made possible by paid sick days, negotiated for them by their collective bargaining units who, it must be said, donate to the very people with whom they negotiate.

Just look at the mess of the Transportation Security Administration's decision to permit unionization among screeners. They won't even attempt to educate workers about the perils of unionization because it's someone else's money and it's politically profitable. From our editorial:

The two biggest federal employee unions behind the campaign to permit collective bargaining at TSA, the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), gave exclusively to Democratic incumbents and candidates over the last decade and now will compete to collect more than $27 million a year in union dues from the TSA's 45,000 workers after the March 9 representation election.

All of the people at the bargaining table are salaried by taxpayers anyway, so it's a big negotiation with someone else's money. But don't call it "negotiation" -- call it "divvying up the loot."

This whole exercise in protesting isn't civil disobedience -- it's just another transaction, one in which the have-yours labor leaders are trying to reassert their authority over taxpayer resources by arguing that it's inhumane to ask government workers to pay more into their own health care and pensions, and that collective bargaining means only one side gets a bargain.

To distract from the sheer avarice of this position, the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and others are trying to get as many people as possible to protest and show some kind of consensus that Gov. Scott Walker's, R, position is unreasonable, even cruel. The numbers are impressive and the photos really do depict the us-vs-them drama, but not in the way union leaders and member hope because the chilling have yours subtext of every sign held aloft by a protesting union member is clear: We don't work for you, taxpayer. You work for us.

About The Author

J.P. Freire

Bio:
J.P. Freire is the associate editor of commentary. Previously he was the managing editor of the American Spectator. Freire was named journalist of the year for 2009 by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). You can follow him on Twitter here. Besides the Spectator, Freire's work has appeared in... more
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