Union provision doesn’t belong in constitution

October 27, 2010 

IF SOMEONE tried to add language to our state constitution granting workers the right to hold religious services on the job site rather than doing the jobs they’re being paid to do, or to say anything they want about their employer and keep their jobs, business owners would be outraged. And rightly so.

Although the U.S. Constitution proclaims that we all have the right to practice religion and say what we want, those fundamental rights do not extend to the relationship between employee and employer, or any other private individuals; what the Constitution protects us from is government interference.

There are certain laws in place that require minimum safety standards, hourly wages and such, but these aren’t rights. They are given by statute and can be taken away by statute.

The same always has been true of the relationship between unions, employees and employers. But politicians in South Carolina and three other states were so upset by the possibility that the Congress might make it easier for unions to organize that they are asking voters to insert language into their state constitutions seeking to pre-empt a potential federal law.

The Legislature authorized Constitutional Amendment 2 in response to worries that arose nearly two years ago that the Democratic Congress would pass what sponsors call the Employee Free Choice Act, or “card check,” which would let unions organize a business by signing up employees on cards rather than through traditional secret-ballot elections. Businesses worry — not without reason — that this would allow unions to bully workers into joining.

The most obvious problem with trying to invalidate a (potential) federal law is that it won’t work. The federal courts have made it abundantly clear that states can’t void federal laws — through their laws or their constitutions.

Supporters who acknowledge that this is a legally meaningless gesture say it’s nonetheless important to send a message. But it’s a little silly to suggest that anyone could be unclear about how South Carolinians feel about unions. We don’t like them. We have some of the toughest anti-union/right-to-work laws in the nation. We have the third-lowest portion of unionized workers in the nation, at 4.5 percent. We’ve already sent our message.

More importantly, the purpose of a state constitution is not to make political statements. It is to set out the powers and limitations of the government. It’s a contract between the voters and the government — not between workers and employees.

Regardless of what you think about unions, anyone who takes their actual rights as a citizen seriously would have to be offended by the way our Legislature has proposed to handle this non-solution to what may or may not ever even be a theoretical problem in our state. It proposes to plop the labor-employee-employer language into Article II of our constitution, whose 12 sections all deal with the actual right of citizens of the state of South Carolina to vote for the people who represent them in the government. This is the essence of our free society. This is the right that protects us from tyranny.

It would be bad enough to sully any part of our constitution with a meaningless political statement. But to insert it into the most sacred section of that document is beyond the pale. Voters need to send a message all right: Tell our legislators to stop playing politics with our constitution.

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