Nikki Haley has tried to distinguish herself as a Republican presidential candidate by announcing, “We won’t win the fight for the 21st Century if we keep trusting politicians from the 20th Century.”
Nice try. It’s not hard to understand why Haley wants to be seen as the fresh face of the future for the party that lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections. Unfortunately for her just-announced candidacy, Haley’s attempt to paint her rivals as old news doesn’t quite cut it. She started in politics in 2004, when she was elected to the South Carolina legislature, and Donald Trump ran his first political race in 2016. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis started in 2012 with a successful congressional bid. In fact, Haley’s got a longer record as a political careerist than most of the GOP’s prospective 2024 contenders.
So what really distinguishes Haley, who formally announced her bid on Tuesday with a plodding Biden-bashing video that echoed the “anti-woke” “stop the socialist left” fearmongering agenda of, well, Trump and DeSantis? That’s easy.
She despises organized labor with a fury that is unrivaled in American politics.
Yes, yes, there are a lot of anti-labor Republicans. But even Scott Walker, the former governor of Wisconsin who in 2011 stormed onto the national stage with a plan to end collective bargaining rights for teachers and public employees, at least tried to suggest that he could work with some private-sector unions.
Not Haley. During her time as governor of South Carolina, she waged open war against labor—even going so far as to suggest she would sacrifice jobs for her state in order to keep unions out.
After her election as governor in 2010, Haley announced that she didn’t think corporate CEOs would be deterred from locating factories in South Carolina, despite ongoing controversy over the fact that a Confederate battle flag was at that point still flying outside the state’s capitol. “If you come to South Carolina, the cost of doing business is going to be low here,” she declared. “We are going to make sure that you have a loyal, willing workforce, and we are going to continue to be one of the lowest union-participation states in the country.”
No hyperbole there. In 2022, South Carolina had the lowest union membership rate in the country—just 1.7 percent. It also had one of the highest poverty rates in the US, and, because so many South Carolinians could not afford housing, the state had the highest risk for eviction in the country. During Haley’s second term as governor, the national AFL-CIO noted that
undercutting public investment and bringing in low-paying jobs has hurt quality of life for South Carolinians: As much as Republicans and Haley crow about their accomplishments in the state, South Carolina ranks near the bottom nationally on a wide range of measurements of health and quality of life, such as infant mortality, drug deaths, and preventable hospitalizations. Haley’s strong opposition to workers’ rights is a key component of many of the state’s low rankings.
So the cost of keeping the cost of doing business low has actually been very high for South Carolinians.
But Haley was never one to put human needs ahead of corporate greed. Companies that did not want to meet worker demands for fair wages and benefits got a message from Governor Haley that South Carolina was the place to relocate. As for companies that were willing to work with unions, Haley said she didn’t want them coming anywhere near her state. “We discourage any companies that have unions from wanting to come to South Carolina because we don’t want to taint the water,” the governor declared in 2014.
She laughed off complaints from union activists such as former South Carolina AFL-CIO president Erin McKee, who argued that South Carolinians “have the right to have good jobs, and if those are union jobs, they’re union jobs.” McKee said that “to keep jobs from coming here because they’re union, I don’t think she’s representing the people.”
Haley kept a pledge made at the start of her first term, when she was fighting to make sure that the International Association of Machinists didn’t unionize Boeing workers at the company’s South Carolina plant, to push back against worker representation by “talking smack” about unions. She signed legislation that prohibited government agencies from requiring contractors to sign project labor agreements or other pacts with unions. She celebrated the fact that her administration was sued by unions. She led the fight to defend anti-labor “right-to-work” laws, like the one South Carolina has had on the books since 1954. And she proudly embraced the label of “union-buster.”
“I will continue to be a union-buster, because every time you see me on national TV busting the unions, another CEO calls,” she said while serving as governor. “It just works.”
For the companies, perhaps. But not for the workers. A survey conducted after Haley left office to become Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations found that South Carolina ranked 37th among the 50 states when it came to entry-level manufacturing pay.
But all those years of “talking smack” about unions did help Haley to frame her campaign messaging.
When she announced her candidacy this week, Haley made a point of discussing her spiky footwear as an attribute. “You should know this about me. I don’t put up with bullies,” she declared. “And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”
That was a warmed-over version of a line Haley delivered in 2014 when she was talking to automakers about how she would make sure they didn’t have to deal with unions. “You’ve heard me say many times I wear heels. It’s not for a fashion statement,” she said, but for a message to organizations that fight for workers: “It’s because we’re kicking them every day, and we’ll continue to kick them.”