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SC's Rep. Joe Cunningham to vote against pro-union bill in break with Democrats

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U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham (copy)

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston, hosted a town hall on Jan. 11, 2020.  File/Brad Nettles/Staff

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham plans to vote against an upcoming pro-labor bill in the House that seeks to strengthen unions, breaking with most other Democrats who have thrown their support behind the measure.

In an interview with The Post and Courier, the first-term Charleston Democrat said Wednesday he is concerned the legislation "will just hurt our thriving economy in South Carolina."

"The economy is humming right now and we don't want to do anything that would throw sand in the gears," Cunningham said. "This piece of legislation would simply overturn our state's right-to-work laws, it would force workers into one-size-fits-all union contracts and deprive workers of flexibility and independence."

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, also known as the PRO Act, would enact some of the most sweeping changes to America's labor laws in years.

Among other measures, it would make it easier for workers to certify unions, block rules that allow employees to not pay union dues, eliminate state right-to-work laws and change how employers classify workers.

While the legislation is expected to die in the Republican-controlled Senate, labor groups have pushed it as a crucial way for House Democrats to demonstrate their support for unions and business groups have fought strongly against it. The House vote is expected Thursday.

The vast majority of House Democrats are publicly supporting the bill, but only three Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors, including two from New Jersey, where unions are a particularly strong political force.

"Out of 435 members, I'm the only one who represents the Lowcountry and this is a vote for the Lowcountry," Cunningham said. "This is what I'm hearing from folks back home and businesses, and it doesn't really matter what other members think, in my opinion."

Cunningham particularly pointed to a provision in the bill that would allow union organizers to acquire contact information for employees from companies, including cell phone numbers and addresses, saying he is concerned it could infringe on employees' privacy.

"People would have to worry about union organizers or folks showing up on their doorstep," Cunningham said. "It doesn't put employees in a good position."

In general, Cunningham said he generally favors leaving these types of policy decisions up to state and local governments because he believes they have a closer relationship to their constituents than the federal government.

"There are some things that the federal government should decide on, however, I think that should be limited and to the extent possible states should have as much say as possible over what goes on within their boundaries," Cunningham said.

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In the 2018 midterm elections, Cunningham scored an upset victory in a district that Republicans had held for decades by casting himself as a bipartisan compromiser who would look out for the needs of the district rather than engage in partisan political battles. His slogan was "Lowcountry over Party."

That message has come under a stress test in recent months after Cunningham decided to vote in favor of impeaching President Donald Trump, a move that some Republicans said undermined his bipartisan image.

But Cunningham has broken with Democrats on other party priorities, too.

He voted against a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, arguing it could cripple Lowcountry businesses, and he voted in favor of a bill to boost border security funding despite cries from progressive colleagues that it would not protect detained migrant minors.

At the beginning of his term, he also followed through on a campaign promise to oppose Nancy Pelosi's bid for House speaker, instead voting for U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois.

Business leaders in South Carolina, where Republican lawmakers have long sought to crack down on union organizing, applauded Cunningham for his decision to vote against the union bill.

"We appreciate Rep. Cunningham's understanding of the need to protect South Carolina's right-to-work laws," said Ted Pitts, president of the S.C. Chamber of Commerce. "Obviously they've played a key role in our economic prosperity that we've seen."

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, meanwhile, warned Wednesday that pro-union groups would withhold campaign contributions from any members of Congress who vote against the bill. 

The issue has hit home at times in recent years. Flight-line workers at Boeing Co.'s North Charleston plant sought to unionize in 2018 but federal regulators ruled that they were not distinct from the site's overall workforce.

A poll in October found that 42 percent of likely South Carolina voters would oppose the labor bill compared to 36 percent support. The poll was conducted by GS Strategy Group on behalf of the pro-business Coalition for a Democratic Workplace.

Opposition increased to 63 percent when voters were informed the bill would repeal right-to-work laws and require companies to turn over employee contact information to union organizers.

In Cunningham's Lowcountry district, the poll found 42 percent of voters would be less likely to support him if he voted for the bill, compared to 18 percent who would be more likely to support him.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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