All-Star Panel: Will Supreme Court deal serious blow to organized labor?

'Special Report' All-Star panel weighs in


This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," January 21, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


WILLIAM MESSENGER, PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: Well, if they can't choose with whom Watts can negotiate, but the question is can it force Susan watts and other providers pay compulsory fees for that bargaining? And the answer is no. Every individual should have the freedom to choose exactly what special interest group if any they want to support.

LISA MADIGAN, D - ILLINOIS ATTORNEY GENERAL: They are not required to pay fees to the union for political speech, but they are required to pay fair share fees so that in terms of the bargaining, the terms and conditions of employment, we are requiring them to pay in.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: This specific case at the U.S. Supreme Court now has to deal with home-based health care workers in Illinois essentially being forced into a union there. That's what the case is about. But there could be broad implications for unions throughout the U.S. What about where unions stand in this country now? Let's bring in our panelists, syndicated columnist George Will, Mara Liasson, National Political Correspondent of National Public Radio, and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer. George, what do you think of this case and the implications?

GEORGE WILL, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, the implications are huge for organized labor because it's position in the private sector workforce has collapsed from 35 percent in the 1950's to 6.6 percent today. So organized labor depends entirely now for its growth on government employees, not just unionizing existing government employees, but getting governors in particularly blue states, such as the state of Illinois, where the governors simply declare that these homecare workers, some of whom are parents taking care of their own children, are government employees because they're paid out of the Medicaid disability funds that the people they're taking care of receive. So they get herded into this union.

They are claiming in the Supreme Court that their First Amendment rights are violated in two ways. They're forced to subsidize political speech of the union with which they disagree. The court has often held that the right to free speech includes the right not to speak. And that their rights of association are violated. The Supreme Court has held the right of free association also involves the right not to be associated. All of this comes down to unions gathering from Medicaid fees dues that then go to Democratic candidates.

BAIER: Mara?

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Well, I agree with George that this would be a big blow to organized labor, which has been dwindling in its representation for years and now faces a new assault in the public sector. The problem for unions is they bargain for these people, they bargain for everybody, and they get everybody the same wages, but so who is going to pay for that service? Now, maybe that service doesn't cost the same amount as the dues. Maybe the dues subsidizes other things. But those people, even the ones that don't like the union, are represented by them, and their benefits and their wages are increased sometimes by the work of those unions. So who has to pay for that?

BAIER: The mandatory element of this, Charles, is the thing that's so potentially threatening.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Right. I mean, it's the old definition of a liberal. He doesn't care what you do as long as it's mandatory. Look, I think this would be a blow to organized labor from which they would not recover. Unless you force people into these unions, and they generally don't go. As we saw in Wisconsin, as we saw in Indiana, once you release government workers from the obligation to actually pay into a union -- in Indiana, for example, the government stopped collecting dues on behalf of the unions. Membership collapsed by 80, 90 percent. So they know that it's the power of the state that keeps them going. And in the absence of it, there's -- they really are looking at ruin.  Which is probably why I would guess the Supreme Court is not going to overturn this. It is really quite loathe to overturn long-standing arrangements, and this is a long-standing arrangement. It would require overturning a fairly venerable Supreme Court precedent. So I suspect there are ways in which it could rule in a less radical way. For example, it could say that these workers don't have to be deemed state workers, which would be slightly different from saying you are a state worker. You now have to pay into a union. So I suspect they're going to look for a way to be less sweeping in their ruling.

BAIER: Aside from this case, unions have been taking blows, as you mentioned, just by their membership across the board. But also you have the Boeing case out in Washington. That doesn't seem to bode well for them, as you look at video of the machinists out there and their decision to essentially stand with the company.

WILL: Capital can move, and in this country, it can move from states that are inhospitable to capital to states that welcome it. Usually, that means to right to work states, such as South Carolina, where if you fly into the airport in South Carolina you'll fly for it seems about a half an hour over a huge Boeing plant, which has moved there because it's friendly.

BAIER: So as you look at 2014, does the impact of unions diminish?

LIASSON: I think the impact -- you mean politically? I think it already has. They couldn't recall Scott Walker. That was a big, big fight for the public sector unions. And they failed in a lot of their attempts. And they just don't have as much clout as they used to. Not just membership is dwindling, but when we are in a time of austerity and you're trying to figure out how to shrink government spending, everybody is going to have to take a hit, and the public sector unions are a big target.

KRAUTHAMMER: It's kind of a death spiral because as happened in Wisconsin, where, you're right, in fact, the unions lost three times different elections attempts to undo what Scott Walker had done. Once they lose, then they lose membership because the state no longer is using its heavy hand to force people into the unions, which reduces the strength and the dues and the money that the union has, which reduces its influence over the politicians.

And in the end they really are looking at a situation in which they're going to be on their own. I mean, Michigan is now a right to work state, which is absolutely astonishing. And when workers have a choice, they generally, as we have been seeing over the last 50 years, are choosing not to join.

BAIER: But what about the workers who say they're worried if they don't have that union protection? They're worried about, you know, not having those unions negotiating on their behalf?

KRAUTHAMMER: Look, it's understandable that they would worry. But there's a rationality in people who choose not to have unions because often the unions increase the cost of work. And as we saw in Detroit, they could end up contributing to the bankruptcy of the company. So if unions overreach as unions did in the fat days of the '50s and the '60s where there was no overseas competition because Europe and Japan were in ruin, then you build in work rules and other conditions that ultimately kill the golden goose. So it's not irrational to stay out of a union, and that's why a lot of workers are doing that.

BAIER: Next up, a rising politician tripped up by her own exaggerations.  

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