A showdown like the ones we’re seeing in state capitals across the Midwest has been building since the idea of a tea party movement was born on a Chicago trading floor.
It’s fitting that union members began amassing in, and Democratic lawmakers fleeing from, the Wisconsin state Capitol within days of the second anniversary of CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s now-famous, on-air tirade from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Santelli, you’ll recall, ranted about federal bailouts and then called for “a Chicago tea party” to protest them.
Two months later, tea parties were held nationwide, and American politics was transformed. Just ask any member of Congress who was involuntarily retired last year by the voters.
The tea party caught on as a popular movement in large part because, in the aftermath of the financial panic and the bailouts and the stimulus, the common American taxpayer looked around and realized he was the only “special interest” without a seat at the table. The tea party finally gave him that seat.
While the tea partyers’ outrage was raw, most of the special interests were smart enough to keep their efforts to remain entrenched hidden in the usual back channels, whether in Washington or state capitals. The only special interest to show its face while pushing back against the tea party? Labor unions.
And when it comes to public sector labor unions, no special interest is more pernicious.
The fundamental arguments against allowing government worker unions have been well-known since at least the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who opposed them.
The government, unlike private companies, makes no profits for which workers can bargain. To meet their demands, government can only raise taxes or cut other spending, with no external pressure beyond the electorate.
Yet, increased promises to government workers invariably are designed to incur greater costs in the future, so the voters who pay closest attention to them are the workers.
And it is all too clear to elected officials — particularly on the state and local levels — that they risk their political careers when they refuse the demands of unions for teachers, police, firefighters. These people vote in large numbers.
Taxpayers are a larger voting bloc, but before the tea party they were an amorphous — and therefore voiceless — group. Now that they are organized, they are electing people like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who are willing to side with taxpayers over the unions — and people like the commissioners in Georgia’s DeKalb County who this week voted for layoffs rather than higher taxes.
So, this faceoff has been coming. But it won’t be the last one.
AOL News Opinion editor John Merline recently wrote that payments to individuals now total $2.3 trillion, or more than two-thirds of the federal budget. Most of the money goes to senior citizens via Social Security and Medicare, whose expansions beyond a safety net have turned retirees into a powerful special interest.
Meanwhile, a similar proportion of federal income tax receipts, 59 percent, comes from the top 5 percent of earners.
“When you put these two trends together,” Merline wrote, “what you find is that the federal government has over the years essentially turned into a gigantic wealth-transfer machine … whatever your [political] view, this situation will make getting the federal budget under control increasingly difficult, since it will invariably involve pitting those writing checks against those cashing them.”
Add public workers to Merline’s figures, and the number of check cashers is even larger. From Madison, Wis., to DeKalb County, the clash between the check writers and the check cashers is just beginning.
– By Kyle Wingfield
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