With the Tea Partiers

The War of the Flea

Tea partiers are proving feisty in opposing public employee behemoths.

By From the May 2011 issue

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By any standard, unions are a behemoth in American politics. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that between 1990 and 2010, the 24 largest unions gave more than $500 million in campaign contributions, 95 percent of it to Democrats. Most of the biggest contributors were public sector unions, the largest being the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which over that 20-year span gave $40,281,900 to Democrats and $547,700 to Republicans. Outside the two major parties, no entity is so heavily invested and wields so much power in American politics.

In a vicious cycle, the public sector unions take dues from their members, who are paid in tax dollars, and then use those dues to work for more influence and more tax dollars from the American taxpayer. With each cycle, more and more money flows from the taxpayer to the public sector unions.

This process has made the public sector unions in particular a significant force in American politics, but American taxpayers increasingly understand that much of that influence and power has been gained off their backs. Thanks to the tea partiers, these unions are starting to encounter a counter-insurgent "war of the flea." When massively superior forces confront a much smaller force, one would expect that, at least on paper, the massive force would easily prevail. But history shows it doesn't always work out that way. In his book Violent Politics, William Polk describes a war of independence from the early 20th century:

The elephantine British army in Ireland was harassed constantly, from dozens, if not hundreds of points, a war of attrition that attacked financial interests, making Ireland ungovernable while gaining support from the world community. Against a flea, massive force appears attractive, but the elephant typically uses violent methods, repugnant to the public and actually seem to prove the militant's propaganda.

I have been saying for some time that public sector unions and the Tea Party are on the front lines of a growing conflict. One side seeks statism, more government, more taxpayer-funded benefits, and public officials who put their interests ahead of the majority of the American people. The other side realizes that government has grown well above and beyond what the Founders envisioned, that we are well down the path of financial destruction due to fiscal irresponsibility, and that too many elected officials no longer serve the interests of the American people.

On February 20, on the steps of the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, the first public manifestation of this conflict played out. At a rally organized by local American Majority staff and tea partiers, some 10,000 people voiced support for Governor Walker's Budget Repair Bill, while on the other side of the capitol, two to three times that many union members gathered to chant, "Kill the bill, kill the bill!"

The interesting aspect of the pro-Walker bill rally was that it was organized in less than 48 hours. Unions are no longer the only ones with this organizing skill. Some will note that the unions protested in the tens of thousands nonstop for weeks, while the tea partiers held only one, one-day rally. But it should also be noted that the tea partiers moved past the protesting into real action: Days after the Madison rally, Tea Party leader Dan Hunt of Kenosha filed recall papers against state senator Bob Wirch, one of the 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state in an effort to avoid addressing the Walker bill. Another Tea Party leader, Kim Simac of Eagle River, did the same against Jim Holperin, another senator who fled the state. The petition drive to force a recall effort is in full force at the writing of this column, with the hope that enough signatures will be gathered to force a special election against Wirch, Holperin, and potentially Dave Hansen of Green Bay before the end of June. (Hansen, incidentally, is a former Green Bay Department of Public Works employee and a 20-year Teamster. Today he is part of the Democratic leadership in the state senate.)

BEYOND WISCONSIN, tea partiers have also taken up the fight against the public sector unions. Chris Littleton and the Ohio Liberty Council (OLC), a coalition of nearly 60 Tea Parties in Ohio, flexed a little muscle to encourage passage of Ohio senate bill SB-5, which abolishes state collective bargaining rights. Littleton and the OLC are now working to attach four amendments to the House version that deal with right to work, designation of dues, paycheck protection, and limiting the number of accrued sick days for union members.

While hardly as well funded as the public sector unions, the tea partiers have an advantage in the long run should American taxpayers, as a whole, follow their lead. Why? Because tea partiers are the first responders, the early adopters, of a very significant percentage of the American population. The tea partiers, in the end, are fighting on behalf of the American taxpayer, and are really the tip of the spear. Consider that we have roughly 310 million people in our nation. Of those, an estimated 130 million are wage earners, of which 53 percent, or 69 million, pay federal income taxes. Of those 130 million, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.9 percent are unionized, or some 15 million. Of those, 7.6 million are public sector employees.

Polk writes in Violent Politics that the fight is won if the majority of the population begins to accept and see the world the way the insurgents do. The war of the flea will end if insurgents win backing by numbers far more significant than the forces they face. If the tea partiers can help awaken the American taxpayer to the reality of the unions, the fight will become one of 54 million nonunion taxpayers vs. 15 million union members. Currently we are nearing the tipping point of this struggle. 

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About the Author

Ned Ryun is the founder and president of American Majority, a political training institution. His "With the Tea Partiers" column run each month in the The American Spectator's print edition. You can follow him on Twitter @nedryun.