Judge considers union suit against S.C. governor
Attorneys have argued in federal court in Charleston over anti-union statements by Gov. Nikki Haley and the head of the state labor department.
Attorneys argued before a federal judge Monday over whether anti-union statements by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and a top state official discourage workers from organizing or are simply free speech protected by law.
The International Association of Machinists and AFL-CIO sued earlier this year, asking for a court order telling Haley and state Department of Labor director Catherine Templeton to remain neutral in union matters in South Carolina. The lawsuit stemmed from several remarks, including those Haley made last December when she nominated Templeton. Haley said her background would be helpful in state fights against unions, particularly at the $750 million Boeing plant in North Charleston.
South Carolina is a right-to-work state, meaning unions can't force membership across an entire worksite as a condition of employment.
"Workers have been chilled in their ability to talk to each other or talk to a union rep," said Kathleen Barnard, an attorney representing labor groups that have sued Haley and Catherine Templeton, the director of the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
Barnard said Haley and Templeton, whose agency has the power to mediate union disputes, can have their points of view. What they can't do, she said, is "declare they are going to use the law in a one-sided fashion to reach a pre-ordained result" of keeping unions out.
Haley "has the right to take to the bully pulpit and make her views known," said Greenville attorney Ashley Cuttino, who is representing Haley and Templeton and is seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed. "I question how real the fear is from this."
She told U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck that the court blocking the governor and labor department director from making such statements "is an extreme remedy for this kind of action."
Houck also wondered whether there is anything beyond the statements that would allow the case to move forward.
"We have a governor now who had made it clear she's against unions," the judge said. "But we can't assume Ms. Templeton was going to break the law."
Barnard responded that the attorneys would like to find that out and that they be allowed to pursue discovery in the case - that is, find out what additional evidence there may be.
Houck said, though, that he would not allow them to do that for now. He said he would likely rule on the motion to dismiss next week.
Meanwhile, a National Labor Relations Board complaint against Boeing goes to court Tuesday in Seattle.
The federal agency sued in April, claiming that Boeing located a new assembly line in North Charleston to retaliate against Washington state union workers who went on strike in 2008. The board wants that work returned to Washington.
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