After more than four hours of testimony and nearly 50 speakers at its Jan. 2 meeting, Sussex County Council voted 5-0 to defer a vote on a controversial right-to-work ordinance.
But not for long. The ordinance is on the Tuesday, Jan. 9 agenda and a vote could take place.
The cold morning started early as union workers with anti-right-to-work signs lined The Circle in downtown Georgetown, protesting passage of the ordinance. Those workers then joined a standing-room only crowd of more than 150 people inside and outside council chambers.
Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, who introduced the ordinance Oct. 31, said it was his duty as an elected official to search for ways to create new jobs and spur economic development, and making Sussex a right-to-work county could be a tool in that endeavor. “We all want jobs. How do we foster that?” he asked. “We are here today to hear from the community.”
At the conclusion of the hearing, Arlett said he was in a quagmire because there is no written opinion in the public record on the ordinance from county attorney Everett Moore, who in October told council that right-to-work legislation is under the jurisdiction of the state and not the county.
Moore's opinion was backed by State Solicitor Aaron Goldstein who wrote in a letter: “The General Assembly has expressly forbidden the delegation of labor regulation authority to political subdivisions.”
“It does not exist. I was assured we would get one, and we don't have one,” he said. “It concerns me that we had testimony in reference to this verbal opinion.”
Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, asked Moore if he was prepared to provide a written opinion for the public record.
Moore said he waited until all public comment had been made and would now provide a written opinion.
In a show of hands prior to the start of the hearing, 30 people in attendance were in favor of the ordinance and more than 160 were against it.
Under the proposed ordinance, no worker in the county would be required to pay union fees or join a union as a condition of employment. However, workers who chose not to join the union would receive the same pay and benefits as union workers. Public workers would be excluded. Delaware is one of 22 states that do not have right-to-work laws.
On Dec. 12, the City of Seaford Council passed a right-to-work measure, the first jurisdiction in Delaware to do so.
Two administrators in opposition
Among the speakers, two former county administrators voiced opposition to the ordinance. Dave Baker, who worked for the county from 1978 to 2012, said he agreed with the county attorney’s verbal opinion that county council does not have authority to enact the proposed ordinance. In addition, he said, in his more than three decades with the county, only one company brought up right to work as a factor for relocating to Sussex.
Joe Conaway, president of the Sussex County Economic Development Action Committee, said the organization’s 13-member board of business leaders unanimously endorsed the county attorney’s opinion. “In 45 years of economic development, I’ve yet to talk to any business where right to work was an issue,” he said.
He said businesses are interested in good schools, infrastructure, broadband, clear and consistent regulations, affordable housing and shovel-ready land.
Conaway, who was county administrator from 1973 to 1987, told council debate over the ordinance has created an uneasiness among business leaders.”There is no way to determine the damage that has already occurred in Sussex County,” he said.
“I think Rob's heart is in the right place, but this is not a tool to recruit people here; not in Sussex County,” Conaway said.
Ted Kittila, an attorney representing the Caesar Rodney Institute, told council they should vote for the ordinance. “You have the power to do that,” he said. “I’ve drafted an ordinance that is defensible and solid.”
Kittila said the other legal opinions in opposition to the ordinance are based on advocacy and not sound legal analysis. “They can't take on the law as I have drafted it,” he said.
He said the county was granted the authority under the home-rule act passed July 23, 1970, by the Delaware General Assembly.
Arlett noted that the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce; Delaware Manufacturers Association; Delaware Business Roundtable; American Builders and Contractors, Delaware Chapter; Americans for Tax Reform; and Center for Workers Freedom had written letters of support for the ordinance.
“Why are you getting locked into this legal morass?” asked Mike Fanning of Bethany Beach, a former labor lawyer. “There are so much more important things to do with your time and resources.”
That sentiment was expressed by several people during the hearing.
Need for higher paying jobs
Speaking in favor of the ordinance was Lyle Humpton of Bridgeville, owner of non-union Master Interiors, who said the issue was bigger than right to work and unions vs. non unions. “It's about freedom and liberty for individuals and the betterment of and a positive future for all citizens and employees,” he said.
Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford, supported the City of Seaford council's adoption of a right-to-work ordinance. He said officials found that right to work had become an issue. He said passage of the ordinance now gives the city a fighting chance to attract business.
David Stevenson of Lewes, an economist with the Caesar Rodney Institute, said right to work is not anti-union. “We are losing union jobs, and we need more of them; we need more jobs period,” he said.
He said union membership in the state has fallen from a peak of 45,000 in the 1990s to less than 15,000 today. In addition, the average family income has fallen from $70,000 in 2000 to $58,000, the biggest income drop in the nation.
He said right to work is one tool that could help turn the economy around. “It's not against unions. It's about getting higher-paying jobs and manufacturing jobs,” he said.
Stevenson said it's true that unions have to deal with freeriders. “It's a balancing act,” he said.
He offered a different set of statistics debunking what he called myths about right to work. Stevenson said workers' pay, benefits and safety are the same with or without right to work laws.
Kevin Burdette of Milton said the proposed ordinance was not against unions, but it allows for alternatives for employers and employees. He said for two decades wages have dropped in Sussex County.
“Right to work creates more opportunities for everyone,” he said. “What has been happening the last 20 years is not working.”
He said if the ordinance fails to stimulate the economy, council can repeal it.
Objective is to weaken unions
Francis Smith, a union carpenter from Dagsboro, suggested that council members take time to do research. He said right-to-work states have higher poverty and unemployment rates and more job-site injuries and deaths.
He talked about an exodus of skilled carpenters leaving Sussex County each day to work at union jobs in Kent and New Castle County where they can make $6 more an hour.
“The real objective of right to work is to weaken the labor movement,” said Tom Jones of Milton, who has served for 40 years in union leadership positions.
He said because non-union workers and union workers in the same company would have the same benefits, the union would be forced to represent freeriders in grievance proceedings. “Even if that cost locals tens of thousands of dollars,” he said.
He said the action was illegal and only the state legislature has the authority under the Taft-Hartley Act to introduce and vote on right to work legislation.
Nick Ryan of Roxana, a union worker for 30 years, said middle-income wages suffer without collective bargaining provided by unions. “If you want a strong middle class, they need to have the right to collective bargaining. You can't get the best deal acting on your own,” he said. “There is already the right for people to take any job they want. Unions provide security for a living wage and benefits to raise your family, and those types of jobs are few and far between in Sussex County.”
“Everybody already has the right to work,” said Lynn Betts of Seaford, who started her working career as a union member. “The passage of right to work would diminish hope for good paying jobs in Sussex County,” she said.
John Dean of Milton, president of the Cape Henlopen Education Association, said the more than 470 teachers in the district are opposed to the ordinance. He said the district has among the best salaries and benefits in the state because of collective bargaining. “You take that away and you severely impact the rights of workers in Sussex County,” he said.
“You don't have the legal authority to do it, and it worries me that you are not taking your attorney’s advice,” he said.
Arlett pointed out that teachers in the district have the right to opt out of the union and not pay dues. “You are right to work,” Arlett said.
“I take offense of the use of right to work. It's right to work for less,” Dean replied.
Dean said 93 percent of Cape teachers are union members.
Teacher Kerry Stahl of Milton, who moved to the area from North Carolina, a right-to-work state, said she was forced to move because she was working without a contract resulting in below poverty level wages. “I had the right to leave North Carolina. Learn from my story,” she said.
Bill Sharp of Ellendale, a union member since 1986, asked council why right to work has become such a big issue. “It's political assassination of unions. Companies don't want workers to have a voice,” he said.