County Councilman Rob Arlett wants Sussex County to consider whether council has the authority to make Sussex a right-to-work county.
Near the end of county Economic Development Director Bill Pfaff's hour-long presentation Oct. 10, Arlett said he recently met with officials at Mountaire Farms in Millsboro – statements that led him to attempt to introduce an ordinance not publicly noticed on the county council meeting agenda.
“They shared with me that they are looking to expand on their current footprint here in Sussex, but they are developing a new manufacturing facility – building one – not in Delaware,” he said. “When you have a company of that size that's choosing not to expand or create further industry here because we're not friendly, it's not too good for our residents.”
After further discussion of his meeting with Mountaire, Arlett attempted to hand out proposed legislation to make Sussex the first right-to-work county in the state. Right-to-work legislation prohibits requiring employees to join existing labor unions at their companies.
Without citing any examples, Arlett said right-to-work could be “another tool in the toolbox.” He called for a public dialogue to consider enacting legislation.
“So for that reason, I want to introduce the ordinance today with respect to that,” he said.
As Arlett started to pass down the paperwork, Council President Michael Vincent turned to county attorney Everett Moore for advice, asking if county procedures allow for ordinances to introduced in such a way.
“Uh, no,” Moore said. Citing council rules of procedures, he said ordinances must be noticed on a public agenda for possible discussion and introduction.
Arlett argued he had checked those procedures before the meeting, and he thought council members could introduce an ordinance at any time during any official meeting, as long as that elected official has the floor.
“I think we heard Mr. Moore's ruling,” Vincent said. “It needs to be put on the agenda.”
At the time Arlett brought up right-to-work, Pfaff had been discussing a proactive approach to encouraging business in Sussex County by taking inventory of the zoning designations of properties, especially on the western side of the county, in order to streamline permitting.
Arlett told the council Mountaire officials cited inadequate infrastructure, insufficient affordable housing and overregulation as the leading factors that dissuaded Mountaire from expanding in southern Delaware. He suggested the county consider task forces to tackle those problems before he segued to right-to-work.
“In the end, it's all about options and choices,” he said. “We also know there have been companies that looked here in the area and once they realized we were not right-to-work, or offered the option to employees, they kind of walked elsewhere.”
Arlett did not say which companies avoided setting up shop in Delaware, and did not indicate how a right-to-work law in Sussex would impact the local economy.
He also did not mention Mountaire recently withdrew its application to expand its Millsboro plant due to problems with its wastewater treatment operations, a decision that came several weeks after neighbors voiced concerns with the company's conduct at a public hearing.
Arlett said he had asked for further discussion about right-to-work in 2015, when state legislators were considering establishing right-to-work zones in some areas of the state. That legislation failed.
James Fisher of the Delmarva Poultry Industry said he does not know which Delaware poultry plants are unionized, but the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union represents more than 70,000 poultry industry workers nationwide. Union spokesperson Casey Hoag said local chapters represent 1,200 workers at Allen Harim's plant in Harbeson and about 1,000 at Mountaire's plant in Selbyville.
Arlett's right-to-work ordinance, which has not yet been publicly shared, was not introduced Oct. 10, but could appear on a future meeting agenda as early as Tuesday, Oct. 24. Council held no further discussion on right-to-work after receiving Moore's legal opinion.
Online report set the stage for right-to-work in Sussex
More than a week before Arlett brought up right-to-work in a public setting, he told the online publication The Daily Signal that Delaware needs to remove mandates that discourage businesses from coming to the state.
In the report published Oct. 2, Arlett said, “I believe in empowering employees and their families with the ability to decide whether or not they want to be part of a union,” and said it would be irresponsible for him as a member of council to avoid offering a right-to-work option to his constituents.
The report stated a right-to-work ordinance could be voted on in Sussex County as early as Oct. 10. While Arlett brought the topic up at the Oct. 10 meeting, a discussion about right-to-work was not properly noticed and the county attorney ruled it would have to be placed on a future meeting agenda.
Right-to-work laws have been enacted in 28 states and Guam. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, and U.S. Rep Brad Sherman, a Democrat from California, introduced nearly identical legislation in September in an attempt to repeal all state right-to-work laws, according to the Library of Congress. Republican senators and representatives from Kentucky and Iowa also proposed national right-to-work legislation earlier in the year. Those bills remain at the committee level.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics show 11.4 percent of Delaware's 2016 workforce – about 48,000 people – were members of a union or similar employee association.