Proposed ordinance introduction sets battleground over right to work

GEORGETOWN – Right or wrong, the battleground has been set for public debate over controversial right to work legislation a county lawmaker is proposing as a boost to Sussex County’s economy.

Councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, introduced the ordinance proposal at the Oct. 31 council meeting.

Introduction before another standing-room-only crowd in council chambers came one week after Mr. Arlett’s introductory effort during the Oct. 24 meeting was derailed when Sussex County Attorney J. Everett Moore Jr. ruled it was not in proper format for introduction.

With introduction the next step is a public hearing before county council.

Delaware is not among the 28 states that have passed right to work laws, which ban labor unions from requiring employees to join them.

As was the case at the Oct. 24 council meeting, the issue drew a parade of speakers during public commentary segment of the meeting. Commentary, which featured support and opposition, was spiced with political, social and even racial overtones.

There was even a credibility challenge of Mr. Moore’s opinion rendered on Oct. 24 that the county council does not have the right under a home rule statute to enact the right to work legislation.

Dan Stevenson of the Caesar Rodney Institute said two legal firms – Liberty Justice Center and Pacific Legal Foundation – have offered to represent Sussex County pro bono because they believe the county has the right under home rule to enact right to work.

Mr. Stevenson added that labor attorney Brent Yessin believes that attorney Mr. Moore’s interpretation that you do not have authority is wrong.

“At this point we have a count of five lawyers to one that you do have the authority. We have two offers to cover the legal expenses,” Mr. Stevenson said. “The voters are watching. This is potentially a very important topic for the county. It is time the council stop finding ways to delay this ordinance and start working actively to schedule this public hearing on right to work.”

Vincent Ascione, representing International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542 that represents approximately 6,000 union workers in Delaware, said workers often come to the union for help for a variety of reasons.

“It could be pay parity. It could be diversity, safety problems or just general conditions on the job site. Not all employers are good people. Not all corporations are good people,” said Mr. Ascione. “Right to work is wrong because it tears at the very fabric our country was built on. Right to work denies the majority their voice. If those people decide to become union, they become union. If they do not want to be union, they do not become union. That’s how it works. Unions are not evil; I know that this is based on union dues. I don’t think right to work is the right answer. It ends up people get sub-standard pay, sub-standard benefits.”

Support

Ocean View resident Robert Lawless said the proposed ordinance giving people the right to choose is fundamental.

“For most of my life I have been lectured by people concerning the right to choose. We have the right to choose our elected officials. Except when it comes to unions; we don’t have the right,” said Mr. Lawless. “The manufacturing sector in our economy is essentially gone. I think we have to take whatever steps are reasonable for us to bring back that sector. It seems to me right to work is a first step.”

Milton resident Cathy Watts, the president of the Sussex County Republican Women’s Club, said right to work is needed to maintain and develop the economic resources and employment opportunities desperately needed in Sussex County, particularly on the county’s western side.

“The right to choose how we spend our hard-earned money and for whom we vote is the American way. We do not have those choices without right to work in Sussex in the private sector,” Ms. Watts said. “On behalf of the Sussex County Republican Women’s Club we urge you to support it for the county. The membership of the largest Republican women’s group in the state of Delaware voted unanimously to seek your support.”

“One of the terms I hear repeated over and over again is that right to work is right to work for less,” said State Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford. “The unemployment rate in Sussex County has been declining. You might say that anyone who wants to work can find a job in our county.  The problem we have in Sussex County is that the type of jobs in too many cases are either part-time or on the low end of the wage scale. It is a known fact that at one time, Delaware was considered as a possible site of a BMW plant. That plant went to South Carolina, a right to work state. Some of you have heard already that the average wages at that plant are just under $40 an hour. What a boost that would have been to Delaware’s economy. Jobs will come back to our nation once the federal government reforms the tax code. Those states that are right to work will have an advantage over non-right to work states. Sussex County can either take the logical step to become right to work, or continue to lose out to states that already are prospering under right to work”

Phoebe Cottingham of Millsboro noted the importance of unionize labor but supports right to work because it offers choice. “Now we need to move ahead,” she said. “And the word is choice, freedom to choose whether you want to join a union or not.”

“I’ve also got a past in unions,” said George Ball. “My father’s uncle, Homer Martin, was the first president of the United Auto Workers. I don’t dismiss the importance of unions. I am here today to ask you to be leaders; and ask you to make a stand for a better economy for Sussex County. We need to have right to work.”

Union members listen to public commentary on proposed right to work legislation at Sussex County Council’s Oct. 31 meeting.

Opposition

James Maravelias, president of both the Delaware AFL-CIO union and Delaware Building Trades association, recited history in connecting right to work to social injustice and racism.

“Somebody brought it up at the last council meeting, about Vance Muse. Back in 1936 he started the right to work movement in Texas. He finally got it passed in 1947,” said Mr. Maravelias. “I’ll just give you a little snippet about what this man was about and what right to work stood for. It may hurt some people’s ears, but this is history and if you ignore it, it comes back to haunt us, right?  … ‘From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs …’”

“This man (Muse) is from the KKK. So now we have a council in Sussex County, the first state of the nation that whoever came and bamboozled you into dusting off in that closet the regalia and put on a glory suit and come out and sponsor some legislation like this in the state of Delaware in the name of economic and social birth in Delaware is wrong,” Mr. Maravelias said. “It’s a lie. First of all, the lies that were told this morning. Unions in Delaware under the leadership of many of those behind me have increased by 2 ½ to 3 percent in Delaware. Nobody has forced them. And the (BMW) company that was quoted as being the one that was going to leave because of right to work was a union company. I don’t want this to be a Republican and Democratic ideology and you’re splitting the community.”

“Since 2002 we have been able to grow our job market nearly 30 percent,” said John Rodriguez of Seaford. “That is currently with unions representing workers. If we are doing something right, what wrong are we trying fix here is my question. I would just like to end that Mr. Arlett should be ashamed of himself regarding attacking working families here in the U.S., particularly here in Sussex County.”

Next up in opposition was Eric Masten of Selbyville.

“I heard a lady talk last week with regard to this being an all-Republican council and right to work is a Republican issue,” said Mr. Masten. “I’ve been a member of both parties throughout my life. I’ve never been so concerned necessarily about the issues of the party. I was concerned about the issues of the people. Right to work is not good for the people. It will hurt businesses. It will hurt workers. There will be less expendable income. You will see lower wages. You will see more people on public assistance which will end up being a huge drain on the local economy. That’s not good for any of us whatsoever. Right to work for less is wrong.”

Michelle Ewbank, field assistance to the president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 27 presented a letter to council and thanked all the union members from various unions for their united support in opposition.

Rick Fridell of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 126 in Bridgeville said right to work will result in a public assistance burden on taxpayers.

“All working people have one voice and it’s through unions,” said Mr. Fridell. “We fight for OSHA, the National Labor Relations Board, affordable health benefits and higher minimum wages which drive the wealthy crazy because they want to exploit the workers and make even more record profits. Fact is most manufacturing left the U.S. a long time ago to escape paying taxes. Many of the previous speakers seem to forget that workers currently have a choice to pay dues or be in a union right now. As said before Sussex County has one of the lowest union densities in the United States.”

Mr. Fridell said right to work is just a Republican attack on working people in Sussex County. “And the IBEW and its Delaware members will fight this every step of the way, which is exactly what the party wants; wasting taxpayer money,” Mr. Fridell said.

Betty McGrath of Milton called statements made by several speakers in support an “outrageous misrepresentation.”

“You have the right to vote to join the union. You don’t have to join the union.  And there is no one else who represents workers at the table except unions,” said Ms. McGrath. “I want to object to one more thing regarding Mr. Arlett’s ordinance. Words matter. And look at the wording of this ordinance. The last line says, ‘acts of coercion related to union support membership.’” That is a cold word. It is an inflammatory word. I take great exception to that.”

Middletown resident Jim Viscount, council representative for Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters Local 173, reminded council that their actions taken today and the near future will have ramifications “long after you are dead and gone. A union is the only way women, men and minorities earn equal pay.”

“These right to work for less laws attack workers’ rights, pay, safety in the workplace. They represent groups that come here but they do not represent working people. They represent corporations; they represent dark money that comes into the state,” said Maurice McGrath of Milton. “They also come here to attack Mr. Moore’s integrity. Mr. Moore is a well-known and respected person in our community. You cannot take away from working people and then expect them to work for less so that somebody can come in and get a bigger piece of the pie.”

Lewes resident Richard King, an opponent of right to work, said he has worked for both union and non-union jobs.

“Working both sides of the fence there is no comparison,” said Mr. King. “We (unions) have a better way of life. We have higher wages. We can pay more in taxes; so there is more money to fund things. Having this right to work is just going to hurt everybody. United we bargain; divided we beg.”

“The term right to work as it applies to this legislation to me seems a euphemism right out of George Orwell. It’s not a right to work. What it is is a right for workers to have their wages depressed. It’s a right for companies to suppress or even destroy labor unions. It’s a right to race to the bottom of the economic ladder,” said Ken Cicerale of Georgetown. “In the U.S. we have the highest rate disparity between the highest earners and everybody else, more so than any time in any of our lifetimes. This is a threat to democracy. That’s what banana republics have. What this legislation would do would be to further assist to decimating the middle class and not having people in lower class aspire successfully to middle class. You talk about rights to choose. Well guess what, we have a right to choose. Choose to belong to the union or not. In states where there are right to work laws in place people earn less. There are higher poverty rates. There are poorer health levels. There are poorer levels of education. Is this the direction that we want to point our county and our state in, a race to the bottom?”

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

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