Machinists sue South Carolina governor for anti-union threats
By Jenny Brown, Labor Notes
Anti-union rhetoric and threats are emanating from new governors in several states, including Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. But none has been so explicit as South Carolina, where incoming Governor Nikki Haley has announced her determination to specifically keep unions out of a new Boeing plant near Charleston.
"I think we're going to have a union fight as we go forward with Boeing," Haley said as she named union-busting attorney Catherine Templeton to head the state's Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation. "We're going to fight the unions, and I needed a partner to help me do it," the governor-elect said of Templeton, who worked for a Charleston law firm that advertises its "union avoidance" expertise.
But officers of the state can't announce an intention to block workers from exercising their constitutional and labor rights, say South Carolina unionists.
By tasking Templeton to fight union organizing, "Governor Haley is requesting a state official to violate the very law she is charged with enforcing," said Bob Martinez of the Machinists.
"She's breaking federal law," said Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO.
The Machinists and the state's AFL-CIO have sued Haley and Templeton in federal court, and are asking the court to order state officials to stay neutral in organizing and contract campaigns, and to stop threatening the rights of workers to associate and organize.
The Machinists (along with the engineers of SPEEA) represent Boeing workers in Washington state and hope to organize South Carolina Boeing workers.
No Union, or No Jobs
Boeing is expanding its production in South Carolina partly to evade its unions. The company is gearing up to fill orders for its new passenger jet after many delays and huge cost overruns. Part of the assembly work on the new 787 Dreamliner will be done in Charleston instead of in Washington's unionized facilities.
Boeing bought an existing Charleston plant from Vought Aircraft in 2009, and is building an additional facility in the area for around $750 million, to be finished by mid-2011. The company says around 3,800 will work in the plant.
State officials, desperate for industry, laid out a $450 million welcome mat to entice the company. South Carolina's low unionization rate, 4.6 percent -- sixth-lowest in the country -- was part of their sales pitch.
Washington state had coughed up $3 billion in subsidies to try to secure the Dreamliner work, and the Machinists offered a 10-year no-strike pledge. Boeing workers struck for 57 days in 2008.
The workers at Boeing's Vought facility had a union, too -- just barely. Workers at the plant had voted in the Machinists 67-60 in 2007.
The campaign to bring a bigger Boeing facility to South Carolina put tremendous pressure on them to decertify the union, Dewitt said. Some workers were disgruntled already, complaining of poor communication from the union during bargaining and then a weak contract.
South Carolina officials made very public promises of a "union-free" environment for the aerospace giant, and let it be known through the media that having a union would hamper a bid to win new work.
The vote among Vought workers was a crushing 199-68 against the union.
New Governor, New Danger
South Carolina unionists are used to hostile state officials, but say the new governor, a Tea Party darling, stands out.
"She's more dangerous because of her newness," said Leonard Riley of Longshore (ILA) Local 1422 in Charleston. "She feels she can say and do anything, and she doesn't have respect for the unions that are already in place."
Riley said the lawsuit will be helpful because "it serves notice that she's not going to be licensed to be freewheeling. She is a person that was elected to represent the whole state but she's not representing us."
The lawsuit is based on the Civil Rights Act of 1871, a statute that enabled civil action against public officials in Southern governments that condoned Ku Klux Klan lawlessness. The suit also appeals to the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which promises equal protection for all.
Labor Notes is a media and organizing project that has been the voice of union activists since 1979.