COLUMBIA — South Carolina Republican lawmakers vowed Tuesday to get even tougher on unions in a state where union bashing is a marketing tool, with moves that critics call needless appeals to GOP voters.
Gov. Nikki Haley said the state’s anti-union status is her best tool for recruiting businesses to South Carolina.
The state ranks as seventh-least unionized, with membership accounting for 4.6 percent of workers, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“That is the one thing companies love – not only that we don’t have to fight the unions as much, but that there is a governor who is flat out saying we don’t want you in our state,” Haley said.
The governor devoted much of her State of the State address last week to laying out the un-welcome mat to unions.
It’s a familiar line of attack in the South Carolina Legislature. But Haley said the new measures are needed to keep unions out as the state works to attract more industry and bring down its chronically high unemployment rate, which improved to 9.5 percent in December.
Two things happened Tuesday: The governor, as she promised last week, signed an executive order to ensure striking workers don’t get unemployment benefits.
And the House GOP caucus introduced a bill strengthening the state’s already tough “right to work” law. The state’s right-to-work status means employees don’t have to join a labor union as a condition of their employment.
Critics contend it’s about inciting Republicans with red meat in the red-voting state, not fixing any problem.
“This is politics of distraction at its worst,” said Phil Bailey, spokesman for the Senate Democratic Caucus. Referring to Haley, he said, “It’s straw-man politics. She’s built up a dummy so she can knock it down.”
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter called the measures overkill.
“I don’t understand the point. Most of what’s included in here is already in state law. How many times do we have to say we don’t want unions? I think that message is pretty clear,” said Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “It’s all fluff and no substance.”
Haley acknowledged that state law already clearly disqualifies striking workers from collecting unemployment benefits.
Her order basically requires two of her Cabinet agencies to communicate. It directs the state director of Labor, Licensing and Regulation to notify the head of the state’s unemployment agency about pending labor disputes.
The order’s meant to ensure the unemployment agency knows when workers are striking, so they deny an application up front, and prevent companies from having to fight a claim for benefits, she said.
LLR Director Catherine Templeton acknowledged strikes are rare in South Carolina, which has one of the nation’s lowest work-stoppage rates. Officials were unsure when workers last struck in the state.
The proposed legislation would increase civil and criminal penalties for unions that break the state’s right-to-work law, require employers to post the state’s right-to-work law, and require unions to submit detailed financial and membership data to the state’s labor agency.
Unions already must file the financial data to the federal Department of Labor, but Haley portrays the bill as needed transparency.
“Unions thrive in the dark. Secrecy is their greatest ally, sunlight their most potent adversary. We can and we will do more to protect South Carolina businesses by shining that light on every action the unions take,” Haley said.
Templeton said requiring unions to file to her agency, as well as the federal government, assures the state gets the information quicker. She said it takes months for the federal agency to collect and share the data. She also questions the accuracy of membership numbers reported by the U.S. agency and argues that the level of detail unions provide in federal filings can depend on who’s in the White House.
Chuck Porcari, spokesman for the Communication Workers of America, called such rhetoric ridiculous. The union has about 2,500 members in South Carolina, including AT&T workers, flight attendants and electricians.
“Every dime that unions spend of members’ money has to be disclosed not only to the government but to the members themselves. Contracts are made public. Union leadership is democratically elected,” Porcari said. “There’s not only 100 percent sunshine, there are no walls.”
Lewis Gossett, president of the South Carolina Manufacturers Alliance, supports the measures as sending a strong anti-union message to the rest of the country. He said few of his members have unionized workforces, so it will have little impact on his members.
The message to organized labor, he said, is that “this is not the place for you. Go somewhere else.” While South Carolina workers already have the right to join or not join a union, the measure “tries to put a little extra meat on the bones — a little more power in that protection.”
With all 76 members of the GOP majority signed on as co-sponsors, the bill’s sure to move quickly through the House. Its prospects in the Senate, where one member can hold up legislation, are less certain.
Haley said it’s about South Carolina going on the offense, following the National Labor Relations Board’s challenge last year against Boeing in North Charleston, which threatened to shut down the newly built plant there and the promise of thousands of aerospace jobs. The NLRB dropped the lawsuit last month after Boeing and its machinist union in Washington state signed a four-year contract extension, in which Boeing promised to build the new version of its 737 airplane in that state.
“I saw it as a warning shot,” Haley said. “We’re going to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”