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. 

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

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.

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.  

For his part, Romney has repeatedly targeted last April’s decision by the National Labor Relations Board to file a complaint against Boeing Co. for locating a new production line for its 787 Dreamliner in South Carolina rather than at its home base in Washington State, which is not a right-to-work state. The move by Boeing’s management was seen as retaliation against frequently strikes by a strong machinists union in Washington State.

A day after President Obama bypassed the Senate to make three recess appointments to the NLRB, Romney launched an ad campaign in South Carolina blasting the president for stacking the NLRB with “union stooges.”

“You can’t build a factory in South Carolina because South Carolina is a right-to-work state,” the ad said.

The issue has also come up in Republican debates. Rick Santorum, a former US senator from Pennsylvania’s steel belt, had to defend his own votes opposing right-to-work legislation at Thursday’s debate in Charleston, S.C.

He said he had already "signed a pledge and said I would sign a national right-to-work bill,” but added that his state had “made a decision not to be right to work.”

Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas shot back, to applause: “But as president, are you going to represent South Carolina or Pennsylvania? That’s really the question.”

Twenty-two states are currently right-to-work states, mainly located in the south, the southwest and a stretch of the Great Plains from Texas to North Dakota. Conservatives pushed right-to-work bills in 11 other states in 2011. All failed.

But a presidential election battle, along with prolonged economic stress, is giving the issue higher visibility – and drawing funding into the race from both labor and business groups with deep pockets.

“The early primaries are putting a bigger spotlight than usual on the right-to-work issue,” says Patrick Semmens, a spokesman for the National Right to Work Committee, which lobbies for right-to-work laws.

“You have a perfect storm of economic and jobs issues, the fact that South Carolina and New Hampshire both had important battles over the right to work at the state level, and a president whose administration is doing things to advance the interest of unions to the detriment of individual employees and the economy,” he adds.

Right-to-work issues are especially prominent in the early primary states. Iowa is a right-to-work state, as are Florida and Nevada, the next primary contests.

New Hampshire passed a right-to-work bill last year, after Republicans took back the House and Senate in 2010. But Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, with an override failing by just 12 votes.  GOP lawmakers are now lining up new measures to curb union influence, including eliminating automatic payroll deduction for union dues.

Conservatives say that right-to-work rules improve the economic climate of a state and help create jobs. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, tapped on Thursday to give the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address, and a GOP-controlled legislature are gearing up to make Indiana the 23rd right-to-work state.

“A right-to-work law will mean more jobs for Hoosiers,”  writes Paul Kersey,  director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. “From 2000 to 2010, employees in right-to-work states increased 2.3 percent, compared to a 4.0 percent decline in non-right-to-work states,” he adds.

Critics respond that the competition between states to lower costs for business also lowers job quality for workers – and does not necessarily produce more jobs.  

“In the 10 years since Oklahoma adopted RTW, the number of manufacturing jobs in the state has fallen by one-third,” writes Gordon Lafer, a political economist at the University of Oregon. “The number of companies coming into the state – supposed to increase by “eight to ten times” – has decreased by 30 percent.”

But what’s firing up the politics of right-to-work in the presidential campaign cycle is not jobs, he adds. It’s the prospect of delivering a severe blow to organized labor as a political force.

Labor unions have contributed more than $395.6 million to presidential and congressional races since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Of the top 20 all-time biggest donors, unions account for 12 of them.

This week, the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, the top all-time union donor, launched a $1 million ad campaign in Florida, targeting Romney’s business career but aimed as well at his support for right-to-work laws.

“The only serious opposition to the business lobby’s agenda comes from organized labor,” says Professor Lafer, who is also a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and has advised Democrats. “There is a convergence of forces seizing on the right-to-work issue, saying: This is our moment to cut off our biggest opponent on a whole range of issues.”

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