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The hidden issue in South Carolina primary: labor union clout

Mitt Romney in particular has used the South Carolina primary to test anti-labor union policies as a campaign issue. His pitch to expand right-to-work laws could lead to Wisconsin redux. 

By Staff writer / January 21, 2012

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley campaigns for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at the Tilton School in Tilton, N.H., earlier this month.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Washington

When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley came to New Hampshire to endorse Mitt Romney earlier this month, it marked more than just a meeting of political expediency. Yes, South Carolina was the next state on the primary calendar. And yes, Governor Haley could help him there.

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But the topic of her remarks was something more than a typical stump speech. It was a trial balloon that could become a major issue in this autumn's general election. 

“One of the reasons we’re bringing jobs to South Carolina is that we have the lowest unionization in the country, and I want to keep it that way,” she said at a Jan. 6 rally in Tilton, N.H. “Barack Obama doesn’t appreciate right-to-work states. Mitt Romney appreciates right-to-work states … and I need a partner in the White House.”

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Right-to-work states are those that that bar unions from deducting dues from worker paychecks as a condition of employment. Unions see right-to-work as a bid to undermine union financing, capacity to organize, and political clout.

Romney has used South Carolina, which is a right-to-work state, and New Hampshire, which is considering ways to become one, as testing grounds for how such a debate might play out nationwide. 

Conservatives see the current campaign cycle as a rare opportunity to undercut union political clout. After historic gains in 2010 elections, Republicans hold the governorships and new legislative majorities in a number of strong union states, including Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Moreover, labor unions bankroll opposition to the sweeping pro-business agendas that undergird Republican orthodoxy. 

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Yet states like Wisconsin, where a Republican governor will likely face a recall election over his decision to strip unions of another right – collective bargaining – show the danger of taking on unions. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) of Michigan says that right-to-work legislation at this time is too divisive and not on his agenda.

If Republicans are going to make right to work a national campaign theme, they will need to do so cautiously, and South Carolina has given the candidates – and Romney in particular – an opportunity to test the waters.  

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