Nikki Haley Is Proud Of Her ‘Union-Buster’ Record

The Republican presidential candidate boasts of her rabidly anti-union past, but her views on labor are out of step with the American mood.
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How much does GOP presidential hopeful Nikki Haley hate unions?

The former South Carolina governor once devoted more than three minutes of her “State of the State” address to a diatribe against organized labor, boasting about her state’s low unionization rate. “We don’t have unions in South Carolina because we don’t need unions in South Carolina,” she said.

She waged a years-long personal crusade against a union organizing a Charleston-area factory, putting an anti-union lawyer in her administration expressly to help her “fight” the campaign. She later lent her voice to radio ads urging factory workers to reject the union effort.

And she once declared that she didn’t want jobs coming to her state at all if they were going to be union jobs. “We don’t want to taint the water,” she said.

Haley has been on the rise in Republican presidential polls recently, buoyed by her performances in Donald Trump-free debates. She appears to be edging out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second place. Although the entire field trails Trump by double digits, GOP donors may be coalescing around Haley as the favored alternative to a guy facing multiple felony indictments.

Should Haley topple Trump and his other challengers, Republicans would be putting forth a presidential nominee with a virulently anti-union past, even by the standards of the modern-day Republican Party.

And they would be doing so as the general public’s support for labor unions hovers near its highest point in more than half a century. More than two-thirds of Americans now approve of organized labor, including 79% of independents and nearly half of Republicans, according to a Gallup survey released in August.

“Haley once remarked that she would rather jobs didn't come to her state at all if they were going to be union jobs.”

A Haley campaign spokesperson did not respond to HuffPost’s request to comment on whether the candidate still harbors the same views about unions as she did while governor and whether she would pursue federal policies to weaken collective bargaining if elected president.

But so far on the campaign trail, there haven’t been any signs that Haley’s antipathy toward unions has moderated. During a September interview on Fox News, she said United Auto Workers members were being greedy in their historic strike against the “Big Three,” even though industry wages had fallen nearly 20% since the Great Recession.

“When you have a president that’s constantly saying ‘go union, go union,’ this is what you get: The unions get emboldened,” Haley said disapprovingly of President Joe Biden.

She added she was proud of her time fighting unions in South Carolina.

“I was a union buster,” she said. “I didn’t want to bring in companies that were unionized simply because I didn’t want to have that change the environment in our state.”

South Carolina has historically had one of the lowest rates of union membership in the country. Last year, it had the lowest of all, with just 1.7% of the state’s workers belonging to a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The next-lowest state was North Carolina, at 2.8%. By comparison, union-dense New York stood at 21%, and Hawaii at 22%.

“I was a union-buster.”

- Nikki Haley in a recent Fox News interview

Plenty of Southern governors pitch employers on their state’s “right-to-work” status as an assurance of lower wages and fewer unions. Workers under right-to-work laws can’t be required to pay union dues even if they enjoy the benefits of a union contract. It’s far rarer for governors to insert themselves directly into a union drive the way Haley did at Boeing while governor.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAM, was trying to organize the company’s newly acquired North Charleston facility, which would assemble the 787 Dreamliner airplane. The IAM had represented workers at the same plant until Boeing purchased it and workers decertified the union in 2009.

Before she was inaugurated in 2011, Haley announced that she was tapping a “union avoidance” lawyer to run the state’s labor agency and help her “fight” the IAM and other unions.

The IAM filed a federal lawsuit arguing that Haley’s comments violated workers’ protected rights and asked the court to order her to remain neutral in a union organizing drive. Their complaint was dismissed, with the judge ruling Haley was free to air her “expression of political animosity toward unions.”

Nikki Haley, now a GOP candidate for president, inserted herself into a union campaign in South Carolina as governor, urging workers to reject the union.
Nikki Haley, now a GOP candidate for president, inserted herself into a union campaign in South Carolina as governor, urging workers to reject the union.
FREDERIC J. BROWN via Getty Images

Haley attacked unions early in her tenure, pursuing policies that lawmakers in her state said were redundant or unnecessary. She signed an executive order barring striking workers from collecting unemployment benefits ― something state law already forbade. Officials couldn’t remember the last time they’d heard about a strike in South Carolina, The Associated Press reported at the time.

“I don’t understand the point,” one Democratic lawmaker told the outlet. “Most of what’s included in here is already in state law. How many times do we have to say we don’t want unions?”

While governor, Haley appeared to relish the anti-union reputation she was building. When a South Carolina labor leader was criticized for bashing a Haley piñata at a party in 2012, Haley said she found the incident “creepy” ― but she seemed to enjoy the metaphor of a physical fight.

“All it does is it makes my heels taller, my heels sharper so that I can kick harder,” she told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren in 2012.

Haley went on to distribute a video of the piñata smackdown in a fundraising appeal.

Meanwhile, her feud with the IAM carried on for years.

“Haley relished her battles with unions: 'All it does is it makes my heels taller, my heels sharper so that I can kick harder,' she said.”

In 2011, the IAM filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), accusing Boeing of transferring the Dreamliner work to South Carolina in retaliation for union workers in Washington state going on strike. NLRB prosecutors found merit in the union’s claims and brought a complaint against the company, citing public comments made by a Boeing executive that strikes were an “overriding factor” in the decision to go to South Carolina.

Haley publicly ripped the union as well as the Obama administration over the complaint. The case was dropped after the union reached a new contract with Boeing in Washington.

When the IAM renewed its push to organize the North Charleston plant in 2015, Haley accepted an invitation from Boeing to appear in radio ads to discourage workers from forming a union. “[T]he IAM is back, and they want to take away a piece of your success. Please don’t let them,” Haley said.

The IAM decided to delay the vote, citing an “atmosphere of threats, harassment and unprecedented political interference” that had “intimidated workers to the point we don’t believe a free and fair election is possible.” The union said two organizers had been threatened at gunpoint while visiting workers at home.

The IAM ultimately lost an election at the North Charleston plant in 2017 by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. Haley accepted a seat on Boeing’s board of directors in 2019, after her time as governor and her stint as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations. Boeing paid her $256,322, including $135,000 in stock, according to Boeing’s 2020 proxy statement. She resigned from the board in 2020, citing her opposition to a pandemic-era bailout of the airline industry.

“Haley ended up on the board of Boeing after helping the company fight a union effort in North Charleston.”

Plenty of other Republicans have burnished their images in the party by battling unions on their home turf. In a similar fashion, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, also a candidate in the 2024 race, raised his profile nationally by picking a fight with his state’s teachers’ unions. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker made his name by gutting collective-bargaining rights for public-sector workers in the Badger State.

But bashing unions and union workers has become less fashionable for a new subset of the party that claims to be concerned with corporate America’s power. First-term GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (Missouri) and J.D. Vance (Ohio) both visited picket lines this fall and said they supported United Auto Workers members.

If Haley were to secure the GOP nomination, it might benefit her to soften some of her anti-union rhetoric for a general election. After all, recent polling consistently shows Americans taking the side of striking workers over the corporations they’re squaring off with. But then Haley would have to explain why she’s walking away from past commitments.

As she told Fox News during that 2012 interview, “I’m not going to stop beating up on the unions.”

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