COLUMBIA -- Gov. Nikki Haley is facing her first big lawsuit after saying the state would try to keep unions out of the Boeing Co. plant in North Charleston.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Charleston by the International Association of Machinists and AFL-CIO asked for a court order telling Haley and her director of labor to butt out and remain neutral in matters concerning union activities.
"There's no secret I don't like the unions," Haley said when asked about the litigation. "We are a right-to-work state. I will do everything I can to defend the fact we are a right-to-work state. We are pro-business by nature. I want us to continue to be pro-business. If they don't like what I said, I'm sorry, that's how I feel."
The lawsuit stems from remarks Haley made last month as she nominated Mount Pleasant resident Catherine Templeton, a Charleston attorney who has specialized in union fights, to run the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. She said Templeton's union-fighting background would be helpful in state fights against unions, particularly at Boeing.
"She is ready for the challenge," Haley said at the time. "We're going to fight the unions and I needed a
partner to help me do it. She's the right person to help me do it."
Templeton made her first Lowcountry appearance Thursday to speak before a group of construction industry professionals in North Charleston. She said Haley hasn't asked her to come up with new policies but simply to enforce existing ones.
"Let me be very clear ... this is an anti-union administration," she told the group. "We don't want Boeing or anybody else to introduce extra bureaucracy into the administration."
The lawsuit said their actions, "taken under the color of state law, intimidate and coerce workers so that they are compelled to refrain from joining or supporting labor organizations."
Machinists union spokesman Frank Larkin said the lawsuit is an attempt to make sure workers' constitutionally protected rights aren't harmed by South Carolina's governor. Larkin hadn't seen another governor be so plainspoken.
"This is practically unprecedented for a state to be so clear and so overt," Larkin said.
If "the machinists are offended that the governor doesn't think unions are a good thing in South Carolina, they're just going to have to get used to it," Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said.
Templeton was confirmed by the state Senate for the job last week. But during her confirmation hearing, state Sen. Robert Ford asked her if she had orders to crack down on labor unions. The Democrat represents the Charleston district where the Boeing plant is being built.
"But you don't have no mandate from nobody that we're not going to let no labor union exist at Boeing?" Ford asked.
"No, sir. Of course not. We don't have the authority to do that," Templeton said.
Ford said Thursday he took that as assurance that Haley was just playing to manufacturing and business groups and not overstepping her authority.
Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, said the governor had no place to make the remarks. Unions have the right to organize under federal law.
"When she made that comment, I was awestruck by that. ... I can bet Boeing did not want to be put in the limelight as such," Gilliard said. "The employees are educated enough to decide whether they want be represented by a union or not. That's totally up to them."
Sen. Chip Campsen, an Isle of Palms Republican and lawyer, said Haley is supposed to make policy statements, which is how he characterized her remarks on the union.
"It's pretty clear that Boeing is going to be a huge economic engine for our area," he said. "And it's also pretty clear that the union activity was a major component in running them out of their home state."
South Carolina's anti-union reputation was key to the 2009 decision by Chicago-based Boeing to expand its assembly operation here. In 2009, only two other states had smaller shares of unionized workers than South Carolina's 5.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Before Boeing's board decided to expand the North Charleston operation, it used the threat of the plant in bargaining with the machinists union. The union waged an eight-week strike in 2008 that shut down the company's Puget Sound assembly line in Washington.
Yvonne Wenger, Katy Stech and The Associated Press contributed to this report.