County council tables action on right to work following lengthy public hearing

GEORGETOWN – Controversial right-to-work legislation that would give workers the right to decide whether join a union remains on Sussex County Council’s table.

Following nearly five hours of public hearing testimony Tuesday – most in staunch opposition – the five Republican council members voted unanimously to defer action on the proposal formally proposed by councilman Rob Arlett on Oct. 31, 2017.

Opponents of right to work raise their hands for a ballpark count prior to the start of the public hearing.

County councilman George Cole made the motion to defer “due to long hours we have spent here listening to this issue.”

As dozens of union members rallied outside inside The Circle, close to four dozen people took the podium to comment on the proposal.

Supporters view right to work as a worker’s personal right as well as a potential tool to boost job opportunities and economic development.

“Good jobs are fleeing Delaware and we are rarely even considered for new major manufacturing or assembly facilities. Every new or expanded U.S. auto assembly plant has gone to right-to-work states,” said State Sen. Bryant Richardson, who represents Seaford where city council in December passed a city-based right-to-work ordinance. “Despite the facts that our economy is stagnant at best, that our GDP is anemic and that our unemployment rate is the 38th highest in the nation, too many in government do not see a need for change. I did not run for office on a promise to keep the status quo, but to work for changes that would improve our economy and reduce the need for higher taxes. What we don’t have is an abundance of career opportunities. I strongly encourage our county council members to take steps to reinvigorate our economy by passing the right-to-work ordinance.”

At right, Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson waits to count the raised hands of supporters of right to work.

Opponents like Jermaine Johnson of Bridgeville claim the right-to-work pitch would hurt the middle-class workforce and is actually a shrouded attempt to continuing the dismantling of unions.

“It really boils down to this: it’s about defunding, dividing and destroying the ability of the unions to negotiate on behalf of the worker,” said Mr. Johnson, a 22-year member of UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers) Local 27. “The union has benefited me greatly; good wages, good health care. The benefit of a union is a blessing to my family. This ordinance will take away that power of our voice. I believe this ordinance – right to work, -there is nothing right about it. Look back at past. We were the strongest when we had that voice. I believe we need that voice back because too many people are suffering. This ordinance is about shutting unions down. When you shut unions down you shut our voice down. We need unions stronger than ever before.”

“Fact is middle class income suffers without collective bargaining,” said union member/supporter Nick Ryan. “Our economy is based on a strong middle class. Unions provide security so workers do not have to go one on one with big companies to earn a living wage and raise families. Unions have done nothing but build the middle class.”

There is also the simmering issue of a legal disagreement over the county’s authority to enact such an ordinance under Delaware’s home rule statute.

Sussex County Attorney J. Everett Moore Jr. offers letters to be placed into the public record.

Everett Moore Jr., the longtime attorney for Sussex County, and State Solicitor Aaron Goldstein have both offered legal opinions stating the county does not have legal authority to enact a right-to-work ordinance.

Ted Kittila, an attorney with the Caesar Rodney Institute, contends the county does have the right, citing Delaware General Assembly action on July 23, 1070.

“That is when the General Assembly passed the Sussex County home rule act. That is when the General Assembly gave the authority to do what we are doing right now,” said Mr. Kittila. “CRI has come out in favor of the right-to-work ordinance. The fact is that election day (2016) did mean something for this. It put five people up here who should be supporting right to work.”

As presiding officer, Mr. Vincent numerous times hammered his president’s gavel following disruptive comments and applause from the audience.

Outside in a pickup truck parked along East Market Street was a huge inflatable rat with a blown-up photo of Mr. Arlett.

Mr. Arlett prefaced the hearing, stating, “We are here today actually not to hear from Rob Arlett. This is a day not about Rob Arlett. This is not a day even about this council. This is a day about this community. This subject first and foremost is because people in this county expect and desire jobs and to be able to provide for their families. And as elected officials we have that responsibility to do what we can to do so.”

Mr. Arlett finalized the hearing by making note of the public record, which did not include a written opinion from Mr. Moore.

Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett speaks during the public hearing on the right-to-work ordinance proposal.

“I think we heard lots of great testimony today. We did, from everybody. It’s all about the community. I think we heard from you. We appreciate that. What concerns me today … there were lots of folks today that made reference to a legal opinion, a verbal legal opinion that was done on Oct. 24 by our county attorney. I will tell you I respect him greatly. I admire him and will always do so,” said Mr. Arlett. “What concerns me though is that – I was hoping I was going to get it today – the legal opinions and letters that are in the public record, right at this moment that is not closed, does not include a legal opinion from our county attorney. A lot of people were making basis and making comments in referencing to something that doesn’t exist. For that I will tell you that it’s unfortunate, even though we were assured that we were going to get one and we don’t have one now. That being said I will agree to defer.”

Mr. Vincent addressed Mr. Moore. “You sit here today and heard everything we heard. You heard public record,” said Mr. Vincent. “I would be my thought that you will now prepare your opinion.”

“That is correct,” Mr. Moore replied.

Mr. Arlett subsequently reaffirmed his concern.

“To be clear I asked our county attorney on Nov. 21 to provide a legal written opinion to support his verbal opinion that he expressed on Oct. 24. Our county attorney agreed on that same day, Nov. 21, to all members of council he would provide the written opinion. The public hearing was held on Jan. 2 and both the public hearing and public record were closed by the county council on the same day. The public record does not include the written legal opinion from the county attorney despite his Nov. 21 agreement to do so,” Mr. Arlett stated. “We, the council are legally only able to make a vote that is supported by the public hearing and public record. Both are now closed and neither include the legal opinion of our county attorney despite many using his comments made on Oct. 24 as a basis to not support.”

Across America, 28 states have right-to-work statutes. Virginia is one; Delaware and Maryland are not. The majority of non-right to work states are in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions and far west, including California.

Council is scheduled to meet Jan. 9.

Following is more public hearing testimony.

Support for right to work

“What we are doing has not been working.,” said Mike Horsey, a businessman from Laurel. “All we are asking is for a chance for our kids on the western side of the county.”

“We need to do everything we can to bring economic activity to Sussex County,” said Don Petitmermet, chairman of Sussex Republican Party. “This is not a party position. This is Don Petitmermet’s position. Personally, I think is just as wrong to require someone to pay money to earn a living as it is to require them to pay a tax to vote. You should have a right to make a living. If there is a chance that here in Sussex County we could take our fate and future in our hands and try something … go ahead and do it.”

“I am for right to work,” said Carol Bodine, secretary for the state Republican party and an Ocean View town council member. “We have a totally Republican committee. Right to work is a Republican issue. My guess is that all of these pro-union people here did not support any of your candidacies. The right to work people supported your candidacies. If you’re afraid of being sued Caesar Rodney (Institute) has attorneys ready to work for you. The reason they haven’t handed you the money is you haven’t voted on the issue yet. If Sussex County supports right to work it will boomerang on the east coast. You’ll see.”

Ted Kittila, an attorney with the Caesar Rodney Institute, waits on deck to speak during the public hearing.

Catherine Watts, representing the Sussex County Republican Women’s Club that voted unanimously in support back in October said she has worked in union and non-union jobs during her life.

“The right to choose how we spend our hard-earned money and for whom we vote is the American way. We do not have choices without right to work. This proposal is only private sector. We already have it in the schools here. They have the right to choose whether or not they pay into the union coffers. Clearly from the number of prospective business owners who have examined the business opportunities here among their questions is whether this is a right-to-work community. When informed that Sussex is not, typically the discussion is over. Some of the data that was put forth by the opposition was based on 5-year-old information. We all know that changed a lot here in the last five years. How credible is that?

“I do my own reports … mostly because I don’t trust anybody else,” said Dan Stevenson, an economic analyst with Caesar Rodney Institute. “This is not anti-union. Delaware’s union membership peaked in the 1990s at 45,000 members. Right now, there is probably 15,000 or less in Delaware, union membership, private sector. Delaware’s household income peaked in 2000 at $70,000 per family. Today, it’s $58,000. We’ve lost $12,000 per household since 2000. Losing all those union jobs is part of why we’ve lost that income. We want more union jobs. But if we’re going to have more union jobs we need more jobs, period. Indiana became a right to work state in 2012. In 2014, they added 120,000 jobs; 50,000 of those were union jobs. If we want to grow unions we’ve got to grow jobs. We’ve got 28 states that have become right to work. There are still unions. They are still working.”

“This right-to-work ordinance that has been brought before you today is not anti-union,” said Milton resident Kevin Burdette, a county council candidate in 2016. “It provides alternatives for employment. I am not perhaps the smartest guy in the room here today, but my daddy did tell me a long time ago that a small piece of the pie is better than none of the pie. I’ve heard it in the research. There are advantages. The fact is wages over the last few decades have dropped in Sussex County. It’s a fact you can’t argue. It’s there. It does not stop the use of unions. If a union can provide some advantage, and there are some places where they do, then an employer should welcome them. But also, it shouldn’t allow me as an employer to not be able to retain an employee because he doesn’t want to pay union dues. It should not require me as an employer if I have a layback or a layoff to have to take employees that are not the most qualified but who have just been there longer. Bumping is a common thing in the union. I worked in the unions over the Washington/Baltimore area. I’ve seen what happens there. Somebody has to pay the stewards.”

William Fox told council he has worked all over the world, including Asia, Europe, Russia and China and in more than 40 years has asked people one question in particular, “What makes America special or unique,”

“The single word – choice or choices,” said Mr. Fox. “And like Martin Luther King, I have a dream. Today, Delawareans can help other Delawareans to achieve their American dream. Just like Delawareans need to be free to choose to be in a right-to-work place. Let Americans be free to work without being forced to pay some union dues for the right to be able to work. In regards to Delaware being free to choose, it has been pointed out earlier today that we could be the first state that would be east of West Virginia, north of the Mason Dixon Line to give Americans the freedom to choose where we can work and to be able to work in the place of our choice.”

Union workers rally in opposition to right to work on The Circle during Tuesday’s public hearing.

Opposition to right to work

Union supporter Lynne Betts took exception to wording of the ordinance. “I just picked up a copy of the agenda back there. With all due respect I am looking at this, and it looks as though it is written by someone that really knows nothing about unions … (involuntary) pay deductions, coercion? I am disappointed with that. I expect folks who are making policy to really do their homework. The phrase right to work is such a misnomer. Everybody has a right to work. But calling this a right to work is a misnomer,” Ms. Betts said. “When I got out of my car on Race Street and walked towards The Circle I have never been as proud as I was today. I did my four years post-high school at a trade union. I was the first woman in the Mid-Atlantic states to get a journeyman’s card in the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades. Back then it was politically correct to say Brotherhood. I earned that title. When the chips were down my union took care of me.”

“Anybody remember the book, ‘1984’?” asked Georgetown resident Ken Cicerale. “They were full of government slogans, euphemisms, like freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. You know what? You could probably include right to work. The only freedom in right to work is freedom for corporations to pay workers less than a living wage. We don’t have so much of a job problem in Sussex County as we have an income problem. In light of the recent tax bill passed by Congress … corporate tax rates have been slashed …the top one percent benefit the most, the question simply becomes, ‘How much is enough?’ How much more do the richest people in America need to pilfer the working people? Is the goal to have the one percent of the population be tax-free billionaires while the rest of the population sinks into poverty like some third-world banana republic?”

“Unions work to bring jobs into Delaware,” said Tom Jones, a steelworker and 40-year union member who said the 1947 Taft-Hartly Act only authorizes right to work in states or territories. “The real purpose of right-to-work laws is to sow dissent among workers.”

Georgetown resident Joe Conaway, president of the Sussex Economic Development Action Council and a former Sussex County administrator, endorsed Mr. Moore’s legal opinion.

“Clearly, Mr. Moore’s ruling is based on the state law that governs Sussex County and that the Sussex County Council was not granted the power to enact private or civil law. That law was passed in 1970,” said Mr. Conaway. “We do not know of any legitimate business that would be comfortable dealing with any government that ignores the rule of law.”

“This entire discussion has created an uneasiness in the Sussex County business community. It has them questioning any thoughts of expanding or locating a new enterprise here,” Mr. Conaway added. “The business community has not expressed any interest in right-to-work legislation. What they are really concerned about: the availability of appropriate infrastructure; a well-trained work force; excellent schools; widely available broadband; regulations that are clear, consistent and timely; affordable housing that is countywide; and sites that are shovel-ready for development.”

“It’s time to end this divisive discussion that will only cost the taxpayers of Sussex County thousands of dollars, result in lost economic development opportunities and end in failure,” said Mr. Conaway.  “Let’s move on to attack the real problems that are facing Sussex County. I have been involved in county government since 1973. I have yet to talk to any business in that 45-year time that said to me, ‘We’re not coming because you don’t have right to work.’”

Georgetown resident Jane Hovington speaks in opposition to the right-to-work proposal.

“There are far more important issues that county council should be doing,” said Georgetown resident Jane Hovington, noting passage of right to work will undoubtedly face legal challenge that will cost taxpayers additional funds. “As far as businesses coming to Sussex County, broadband is our biggest issue.”

John Dean, president of the Cape Henlopen Education Association, said all 470-plus members opposed the proposal.

“At least 90 percent of those are Sussex County residents and they reside across all five representative districts,” said Mr. Dean.

He cited the value of unionization in that employment positions in the Cape Henlopen district typically attract 30, 40, 60 upward of 100 applications because of the salary structure and benefit package. “Of the school districts in the state, I guaranteed you we have the best benefit package, bar none,” said Mr. Dean. “We have that because of collective bargaining. We sit down and discuss what we need, what they need, and we compromise. It’s not a one-way street. Collective bargain is a two-way street. To take that away severely impacts the right of the worker and the lifestyle of your middle-class people that are living here in Sussex County.”

“Of the 22 states in the country that pay only federal minimum wage $7.25, of the 22, 19 of them have right-to-work law,” said Patricia Frey of Dagsboro. “When unions are strong compensation increases, even for workers who are not covered by any union contract. Likewise, when unions are weak by right to work … then all of the state’s workers feel that impact.”

Sussex County native Kerry Stahl said she attended college in North Carolina and began her teaching career there but could not stay.

‘As I am sure you are aware North Carolina is a right-to-work state,” Ms. Stahl said. “That gave me the right to a starting salary below the national poverty line. That gave me the right to work many unpaid hours. That gave me the right to work without the protection of a contract and eventually it gave me the right to leave North Carolina where the teaching shortage is in a crisis.”

“Right to work is not about economic growth, it is about silencing voices,” said Seth Buford of Rehoboth. “Much of the mythology surrounding right to work falls around unions as job killers, forced unionization. Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as a closed shop. Employers have the right to hire members that they feel are skilled and qualified and they may join the union if they wish. This about union-ending legislation.”

Rehoboth resident Shawn Colleran said workers in right-to-work states make about $7,000 less annually than non-right-to-work states. He added there is less safety, higher accident rates including job fatalities, less health care and higher premiums in right-to-work states. “Also, less money spent on education – over $3,000 less per student,” Mr. Colleran said.

Al Brocato, a union carpenter and instructor, told of his union’s support during his wife Rose’s 7-year battle with breast cancer.

“Treatments cost $5,000 to $30,000 every other week,” he said. “We didn’t have to worry about money. We knew the carpenters’ union was taking care of us. It’s more than taking money from people. Rose died June 27, 2017. She passed away knowing I wouldn’t have sell the house to pay the bills at Beebe. So, I ask you, would you rather me pay union dues to take care of my family or do you want me to be on assistance from government?”

Opponents of right to work were out in full force Jan. 2 during the public hearing held by Sussex County Council.

Kevin Eitner, president of Cape Henlopen School District’s 180-member support staff said unions exist to give working people a voice and leverage over their working conditions and economic policy decisions that shape these conditions. “Collective bargaining is indispensable if we want to achieve shared prosperity. But it is precisely because they are affected and necessary for shared prosperity that unions are attacked by the employers who want to maintain excessive leverage over workers and policy makers representing the interests of the top one percent,” said Mr. Eitner.

Former Sussex County Administrator David Baker of Milton worked for the county from 1978 to 2012: “Based on legal reviews it is doubtful the county has legal authority to enact the ordinance. Approving the ordinance would bring a lawsuit and county taxpayers would incur some additional legal cost,” said Mr. Baker. “I do not believe that this legislation is the right thing for workers. A worker benefits from union negotiations, training, benefits and it is appropriate that the worker should pay his or her share for the cost associated with unions. In my vast experience as a county employee I am only aware of one instance during those years that a Sussex company or a prospective company brought up right to work as a factor in deciding whether or not to locate in Sussex County.”

A picture of Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett, who introduced the right-to-work ordinance proposal in October, hangs from a large inflatable rat along East Market Street.

“Mr. Arlett, I do understand that you are in kind of a learning stage when it comes to this,” said John Rodgriguez, who made a comparison to union dues. “I do pay over $100 a year in a AAA membership for my car. What was to happen if AAA would just waive membership fees for everyone. They would essentially go out of business. Don’t be fooled by what has been a made-up euphemism. At the end of the day this is not good for workers, it is not good for people, it is not good for our county. Most importantly, this is a smoke-and-mirrors ploy to get rid of unions through the term of economic development when essentially they are trying to cut off the funding that members offer for the services that are provided.”

“A lot of people have been coming up here and talking about possibility of companies coming into Sussex County and saying no (for lack of right to work),” said Maurice McGrath of Milton. “But no one has offered any evidence of who those companies are. No names, no people, no nothing. Why can’t they produce evidence of it? There is no evidence, because there is no one knocking on the door. This right to work for less is to attack the values of our country, attack the values of union people, working people. As other people stated it will start with private sector and it will go against teachers, go against nurses and correction officers, police, state troopers. Eventually, it will work right across the board as it has in every other right-to-work state.”

Lewes resident Robert Woods, a steelworker and 52-year member of organized labor, said he and other members prospered thanks to union support.

“During the 50s, 60s and 70s the middle class witnessed its greatest growth and prosperity. As a direct consequence of the success of the middle class, the U.S. also enjoyed a robust and vibrant economy and the benefits of that were realized by a broad sector of the population,” said Mr. Woods. “Since the 1980s, however, our country’s economy has encouraged and rewarded business decisions that emphasize maximizing profits rather than quality work or rewarding the work force. At the same time, we have seen the steady decline and dismantling of labor unions – the one component of the American economic system that always helped maintain middle-class wage benefits. When workers are not organized they are at the mercy of business owners. It hasn’t been shown by any legitimate study that it (right to work) increases work opportunities as some would claim. On the contrary what the legislation has done is decreased wages and benefits in those states where it has been put into effect. Please don’t be fooled by the sound of the title: right to work, unless you add ‘for less.’”

Pete Keenan of Selbyville said competition from abroad, not lack of right to work was the reason DuPont pulled up stakes at its pioneering nylon plant in Seaford.

“Dupont found itself competing with high-quality nylon produced in Asia. This plant did not close down because we were a non-right-to-work state,” said Mr. Keenan. “We have lost a lot of manufacturing jobs in this country due to imports and this is one of them.”

Betty McGrath, another Milton resident, quoted Dr. Martin Luther King: “This is a quote he made in 1961 and I quote, ‘We must guard against being fooled by false slogans such as right to work. It is a law to rob us of our civil right and job right. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and freedom of collective bargaining.’”

“This is an ill-conceived and ill-timed ordinance and I hope you would vote it down,” said Ms. McGrath.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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