Saturday’s editorial comes from The State, and addresses the spurious complaint filed against Gov. Nikki Haley by the machinists union.
U.S. District Judge Weston Houck exercised a tremendous amount of judicial restraint last week when he avoided writing what he so clearly was thinking as he dismissed a union lawsuit against Gov. Nikki Haley: “I can’t believe you wasted my time on this.”
The primary time-wasters were the machinists union and the state AFL-CIO, who filed the insulting and frivolous lawsuit attacking the governor’s right to express her opinion about them. But Ms. Haley wasn’t spared a gentle rebuke – nor should she have been: Unlike the unions, she has a responsibility to the public, and her role in this ridiculous dispute shouldn’t be overlooked.
For reasons that escape me, the unions and their friends at the National Labor Relations Board had been itching for a fight in what is arguably the most anti-union state in the nation. The NLRB, having the force of a friendly president behind it, first attacked a voter-approved constitutional amendment designed to void the so-called card-check legislation that never passed the Congress and in all likelihood never will. Then it launched its broadside against Boeing for daring to decide without union or government permission where it wanted to open a new plant, and for having the audacity to say that it wasn’t crazy about all those strikes the unions kept calling. (I’m no expert on federal labor law, so I’ll concede the possibility that this was in fact illegal; if so, the law is in dire need of amendment.)
Meanwhile, our new governor was more than happy to oblige and provoke the hapless unions, when she trotted out her new labor secretary late last year and declared that together they would continue Catherine Templeton’s private-sector crusade against unions. It hardly seemed like a good use of their time, given how unwelcome unions are among S.C. workers, and it seemed particularly unnecessary that they would focus on protecting Boeing, given that the first thing unionized workers did in 2009 after the company took over the Vaught plant in Charleston was to decertify their union.
The machinists and the AFL-CIO barely waited for the governor to be sworn in before filing their lawsuit, which essentially said: Make her stop saying nasty things about us. The suit claimed that the two women’s trash talk amounted to threats that would frighten workers out of organizing, and that as such it was an illegal and unconstitutional assault on the First Amendment rights of would-be union members. Among the frightening “threats”: “We are going to fight the unions, and I need a partner to help me do it” and “We are not going to allow unions to come into this state.”
Specifically, the suit claimed that “the defendants’ various statements evidence an agreement between Governor Haley and Director Templeton to use the machinery of state government to prevent workers from joining or organizing unions or advocating for unions.”
If that’s what the governor and her union-busting labor secretary had in mind, they were really wasting their time. For as long as there have been unions, the official policy of the state of South Carolina has been to try to prevent workers from joining them, specifically through the right-to-work laws that the unions bristled at Ms. Haley hyping. And as Judge Houck noted, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The governor’s remarks were in fact needlessly provocative, for what seemed clearly like an attempt to score points with her then-still-new national audience. And even as Judge Houck recounted the unambiguous law and precedent that supported the governor’s right to say mean things about unions, he couldn’t hide his disdain for the politically calculated hyperbole that characterizes contemporary society. As he noted at one point: “Considerations of fairness, or at least a respect for its appearance, might have counseled the defendants to have held their tongues. But this Court does not exist to ensure that public officials present themselves as the impartial authorities some might wish them to be.”
A spokesman told The Post and Courier that the machinists union was considering an appeal of Judge Houck’s order because “We’re still very concerned that the governor’s personal opinion could color official actions in the days and months to come.”
Well, yes, to the extent that she has any power in this area, it might. That’s the way government is supposed to work: We elect people because we like their opinions, and then we expect them to act based on those opinions.
As Judge Houck explained: “Public officials do not abandon their First Amendment rights upon assuming office.” To the contrary, “The right to speak freely is indispensible to elected officials as well as their constituents.”
In this country, the proper way to respond when elected officials say things we don’t like is to work through the political process to try to get them unelected – not to try to strip them of their First Amendment rights to say those things. The unions ought to remember that, and so should their friends at the NLRB.