July 10, 2014

SC Senate bill officially bars union activity for government employees

Martin Chair

Martin’s bill would make it illegal for state and local employees to unionize.

State Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, has introduced a bill to make it illegal for South Carolina government employees to unionize.

That’s right, it’s not –officially– illegal now. It has been discouraged by South Carolina’s GOP governors, legislators, and attorneys general throughout history.

But according to Martin, the chair of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, the state’s right-to-work law “does not prevent a labor union from entering into a public sector employment situation.”

“I’d always understood that it is the law or policy of the state, but that particular policy has never been fleshed out,” Martin added.

That was news to statewide union activist James Sanderson, president of United Steel Workers local 7898.

“Somebody had a myth out there in this state that the right-to-work law prevented these government officials or government employees did not have a right to organize,” Sanderson told South Carolina Radio Network. “That is what they want to make sure is that no one is going to sit down to negotiate a contract.”

“The Highway Patrol, SLED, all these state workers once they find out they have a right to form a union, think what kind of impact that’s going to have in the state,” he said.

Martin wants to nip that in the bud. “You can have very small segments of governmental entities seeking to do that and I just don’t believe the public resources ought to be expended on the behalf of labor unions,” Martin said. “It ought to be fleshed out in state law.”

This bill is an overreach according State Sen. Brad Hutto (D-Orangeburg), an attorney who handles some labor cases, who said there are pseudo-union groups like the South Carolina Education Association and the State Employee Association.

“That bill broadly says a state employee association cannot be recognized basically to participate in things related to their employment. We often reach out to these groups when we discuss employee co-pays, when we discuss retirement and medical benefits,” Hutto said.

He questioned the need for the bill. “It seems to turn current understanding on its head and say ‘they do have this ability to unionize and unless we pass this law they’ve got that right.’”

But South Carolina has been historically clear in its hostility to unions.

The state’s implied stance is partly connected to a 113-day nurses strike against the Medical College of South Carolina in Charleston in 1969, in the heat of the civil rights movement.  The picketers were mostly black and female. In that case, state government leaders created a legal argument against recognition of public employee unions which has since become informal policy. As Martin said, there is no statute making it illegal.

Some states have enacted laws giving government employees collective bargaining rights. But in the absence of a law in South Carolina, public workers are still not free to join unions according to the state’s leading labor scholar.

Former University of South Carolina researcher and attorney Hoyt Wheeler explained that the National Labor Relations Act does not give state and local government employees bargaining rights. He said he believes that if there were a legal challenge, the South Carolina Supreme Court would concur with the state’s prohibition of public employee unions.

“This legislation would simply clear up any questions,” Wheeler said.