Sussex County Council will start off the new year with a public hearing on one of the most controversial proposals to surface in recent years.
Council will accept public comment on a proposed right-to-work ordinance starting at 10:45 a.m., Tuesday, Jan. 2, in the county administration building, 2 The Circle, Georgetown. Meetings start at 10 a.m.
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. Public workers would be excluded. Delaware is one of 22 states that do not have right-to-work laws.
Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, says a right-to-work ordinance would be another tool to spur job creation and economic growth. It was Arlett who introduced the ordinance Oct. 31.
In mid-December, the City of Seaford Council passed a similar ordinance as the first jurisdiction in Delaware to have a right-to-work ordinance.
Dozens of people for and against the ordinance have already addressed council during public comment periods over the past two months.
On one side are those who are convinced a change to right to work would help foster economic development. Then there are those who say the ordinance is an attack on unions, which are critical to protecting workers and providing good-paying jobs. Union leaders representing thousands of union members testified the ordinance was unnecessary and would hurt the local economy, not boost it.
Both sides have produced data claiming to support their views that the ordinance would either boost or hobble economic growth.
Both sides agree that the passage of an ordinance will be challenged in court.
Attorney Ted Kittila of the Caesar Rodney Institute said county officials have the right under the state home-rule law to enact the ordinance.
That contradicts the opinion of county's legal staff; during an Oct. 24 council meeting, county attorney Everett Moore said right-to-work legislation is under the jurisdiction of the state and not the county.
That statement was backed up by a letter to council from State Solicitor Aaron Goldstein who wrote that Sussex County’s powers are granted by the General Assembly. “The General Assembly has expressly forbidden the delegation of labor regulation authority to political subdivisions,” he wrote.
Home rule at center of debate
The issue facing county officials is whether under Delaware's home-rule law, council can legally enact an ordinance dealing with a labor issue.
According to Goldstein, Sussex County's home-rule authority does not include the power to enact private or civil law concerning civil relationships. “The relationship between an employer and employee, between an employee and a collective bargaining organization, and between the collective bargaining organization and the employer are all civil relationships,” Goldstein wrote.
Council members first discussed right to work in April 2015 during a legislative update. House Bill 87, supported by downstate Republican representatives, would have allowed counties and municipalities to designate right-to-work zones. The bill was assigned to the House Labor Committee and did not reach the full General Assembly.
Council has scheduled a recess from noon to 1 p.m.
Editor’s note: The print edition contained the name of two legal organizations that had previously indicated they would represent Sussex County pro bono should legal action be filed. The organizations have withdrawn those offers.