By Corey Hutchins, Columbia Free Times

When Gov.-elect Nikki Haley said her nominee to head up the state's labor agency will aid her in helping "fight the unions" -- and specifically help keep unions from organizing at aircraft-maker Boeing's North Charleston assembly plant -- the director of South Carolina's leading labor organization reacted by asking her group's national office to investigate whether such declarations were in line with the law.

Last week, Haley picked Mount Pleasant labor attorney Catherine Templeton to run the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Templeton has worked previously for textile firm Milliken & Company and been involved in drafting state right-to-work bills. The website of the law firm she works for touts her 14 years of experience in "union avoidance," including national campaigns against several major national unions.

"We're going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it," Haley said of Templeton, according to the Associated Press.

Now, Donna DeWitt, who runs the state chapter of the AFL-CIO, says she is asking the organization's Washington, D.C., office to look into whether Haley's comments crossed any lines under the Palmetto State's right-to-work law.

"In the right-to-work laws, it says unions can't intimidate people in joining unions and employers can't either," DeWitt says. "This is an open violation of that. It's an open statement made publicly by our [incoming] governor."

Hoyt Wheeler, a retired professor of business management at the University of South Carolina who taught classes on collective bargaining and works as a part-time labor arbitrator, says DeWitt might be onto something.

"It's really up to workers whether or not they have a union -- and that's the federal law," Wheeler says. "It's not up to the governor; it's not even up to Boeing."

The state labor agency's mission is to promote the health, safety and economic well being of the public through regulation, licensing, enforcement, training and education, according to its website.

That mission is in contrast to how Haley outlined the agency's thrust in a statement to Free Times.

"Catherine understands that [the agency's] mission should be to serve the businesses and taxpayers of our state," Haley said.

In most states, labor agencies look out for workers, Wheeler says.

"And, unsurprisingly, that's not true in South Carolina," Wheeler says. "I think it's outrageous that a governor would announce the purpose of that department is to serve something other than the interest of workers."

Last year, South Carolina had the third-lowest organized workforce in the country at 4.5 percent, according to the national Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The Palmetto State has a bloody history when it comes to unions, including a brutal massacre in the town of Honea Path in 1934 when security forces working for a textile company opened fire on workers attempting to organize.

Three-quarters of a century later it's not bullets targeting organized labor, but apparently the bully pulpit of the state's chief executive.

Retired USC history professor Thomas Terrill, who has followed the labor movement in the United States for years, says there's been a long tradition in South Carolina to beat unions that crosses party lines. And, he says, it seems to pay off.

"But to be quite so open about it is relatively new to me," he says, of Haley's comments. "On the other hand, I'm not surprised."

Others were.

"I was, to be honest, surprised at the comments made by the governor," says Frank Larkin, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. The Maryland-based IAM has been maintaining contact with its supporters in North Charleston who are looking to form a union at the Boeing plant.

But the main reason Boeing Co. came to South Carolina was because of a lack of union organizing, the company's CEO Jim Albaugh said in March.

Haley said the state's labor agency would play a big role in keeping unions out of the plant. Templeton's background in the Charleston office of the law firm of Ogletree Deakins has given her plenty of experience in that regard.

The Senate will have to confirm Templeton and will consider doing so in January.

State Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat, says one question he expects lawmakers might ask her is whether she can set aside her past work associations and positions she's taken when she moves into her new role as director of the labor agency.

The union spokesman Larkin says Haley's comments about fighting union organizing at the Boeing plant sound more like something a business lobbyist would say rather than a public servant.

"The right to organize is protected by federal law," Larkin says. "If the governor actively chose not to enforce collective bargaining rights, I think it would become an issue."