The Left's fantasy of a Wisconsin worker rebellion

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This is what happens when you think you're "fighting the Man," but it turns out you are "the Man."

The Democrats' defeat in Wisconsin's recall election Tuesday carries a lesson that sounds obvious: A politically connected class of people who get paid much more than their neighbors, thanks to tax dollars supplied by these same neighbors, cannot pass itself off as an oppressed minority. And that privileged class certainly can't get away with running against "special interests."

When Wisconsin's government employee unions and the activist Left began their failed crusade against Gov. Scott Walker, they saw themselves as the peasants storming the castle. They compared themselves to the Tahrir Square demonstrators overthrowing oppressive Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

"Solidarity!" was the watchword of the Left as Walker and the Republican legislature passed a bill curbing the collective bargaining powers of state employees and cutting some of their bloated taxpayer-funded benefits. The workingman was going to stand up to the monied special interests. They called it "the Wisconsin Uprising."

But as the recall progressed, something telling happened: The labor issue faded into the background.

In the primary for the recall election, Democrats chose Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who had himself clashed with labor unions, instead of union favorite Kathleen Falk. Barrett, even during the primary, was upfront about being less pro-union than Falk. He would preserve some of Walker's benefit cuts, he said. He explicitly rejected Falk's approach of playing hardball to restore government employees' collective bargaining.

The Wisconsin teachers union, the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees all endorsed Falk. But Barrett demolished her in the April primary, 58 percent to 34 percent.

In the general election, collective bargaining almost disappeared as an issue. The recall suddenly became about job growth and a district attorney investigation into Walker. Democrats concluded that running as the champion of government employee unions wasn't a winning issue.

And Walker's supposed power grab, curbing state employee unions, didn't turn the people against him. More people voted for Walker in the recall Tuesday than had voted for him in November 2010, and his share of the vote ticked upward slightly.

Exit polls puncture any notion of a blue-collar uprising. Thirty-eight percent of union members and their immediate families voted for Walker. Walker and Barrett tied among voters with college degrees, but Walker won by 13 points among voters without a degree.

After a year and a half of protests, petitions, theatrics and loaded rhetoric, the Left never got the workers' rebellion they were dreaming of.

David Dayen, a prominent liberal writer at the feisty FireDogLake blog, stated the problem well: "Middle class workers look on public employees with increasing envy, coveting their pensions and benefits. The middle class was pit against one another. ... "

What else would you expect? State employees in Wisconsin are paid 22 percent more than their private-sector neighbors, and they get benefits that are much more generous.

Wisconsin taxpayers were picking up about 94 percent of state employees' health insurance premiums, until Walker lowered that to only 88 percent. Private-sector employers on average cover about 80 percent of premiums for single coverage and 74 percent of premiums for family plans, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Anyone on the Left who thought the middle class would side with government unions was badly misunderstanding the populism of the post-bailout era. Americans on the whole don't resent people who make a lot of money. They resent people who make a lot of money unfairly, like bailed-out bankers or crony capitalists -- and also unionized government employees.

When government unions collectively bargain for more money, it's not a fair negotiation. They're not bargaining with the people who pay them -- the taxpayers -- but instead with politicians, many of whom were elected on the strength of union support and union dues.

So when middle-class workers pay their taxes, that money is redistributed upward to state employees with higher pay, safer jobs and superior benefits, while some is funneled to unions that use it to elect politicians who will confer further privileges on government workers. If anyone raises a fuss, government workers call for a class struggle.

It's no mystery that Wisconsin's middle class didn't sign on to AFSCME's crusade. The mystery is why anyone thought it would.

Maybe it's the unstated belief in liberal circles that the Left holds permanent claim on the underdog mantle. Maybe the government unions haven't been paying attention to how divorced their interests are from those of the average worker.

Maybe now the lesson is learned.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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