South Carolina's reputation as a hostile environment for organized labor is back in spotlight this week.
The latest development unfolded Monday, when a Charleston judge heard arguments about whether to toss out a lawsuit facing Gov. Nikki Haley and a Cabinet member over anti-union remarks they have made.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck said he would likely rule within a week to 10 days.
The International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers sued Haley and Catherine Templeton, director of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, over their statements earlier this year. It is seeking a court order to force them to remain neutral in organized labor matters.
Haley, for example, specifically cited the union-fighting skills Templeton developed as a labor attorney when the then-governor-elect nominated her to run LLR in December. Haley said that her expertise would be helpful in state's efforts to combat unions, particularly at the new Boeing Co.'s new 787 aircraft plant in North Charleston.
"We're going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it," Haley said at a Dec. 8 news conference.
Templeton, a former Charleston labor attorney, was then quoted as saying in January: "Let me be very clear ... this is an anti-union administration. We don't want Boeing or anybody else to introduce extra bureaucracy into the administration."
Kathleen Barnard, a Seattle lawyer representing labor groups in the lawsuit, said Haley and Templeton are out to abuse LLR's broad regulatory powers to intimidate and suppress union organizing efforts in South Carolina. The concern, she said, is that "they are going to use the law in a one-sided fashion to reach a pre-ordained result."
Greenville lawyer Ashley Cuttino, who represents Haley and Templeton, said the two officials were expressing their rights to free speech on an important policy issue for the state. She said the governor, for instance, "has the right to take to the bully pulpit and make her views known."
Cuttino argued that the case should be dismissed because the union could not show that Haley or Templeton had taken any illegal or threatening actions against any labor organizations.
Earlier in the hearing, Houck interrupted Barnard to say that Haley and Templeton "haven't done anything yet, except talk."
Opened just a few days ago, Boeing's 787 assembly plant has become the focal point in a growing national political debate over the relationship between unions and private businesses.
Separately, a Republican-led congressional panel has scheduled a field hearing Friday for North Charleston to discuss the NLRB case.