GEORGETOWN, Delaware—A right-to-work measure in one of this state’s three counties remains on the agenda despite the objections of a government attorney and dozens of union members who showed up in force.
Sussex County doesn’t have the power under Delaware’s home rule statute to pass the legislation against forced unionization, the county council’s lawyer warned Tuesday during a discussion of the bill.
“My opinion is that this is not something granted to Sussex County, and we don’t have the authority under home rule,” J. Everett Moore, the lawyer, told the Sussex County Council.
If the council passes the measure proposed by member Rob Arlett, the council’s lawyer said, someone will take it to court.
But the five lawmakers, all Republicans, plan to reintroduce the measure officially after making technical changes he recommended.
The action in Delaware isn’t occurring in a vacuum. In New Mexico, the Sandoval County Council has held two public hearings on its own proposed right-to-work ordinance, and is set to vote on it Nov. 2.
A total of 28 states are now right-to-work states, with Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and West Virginia making the move since 2012. The U.S. territory of Guam also is a right-to-work jurisdiction.
Kentucky stands out because its counties established the legal right to move forward with their own ordinances in the absence of state-level action.
>>> Related: Is Right to Work Coming to Northeast?
Opponents of the Sussex County action could ask a judge for “injunctive relief” from the right-to-work law, Moore said, meaning it wouldn’t be implemented until legal challenges were resolved.
Moore also said the council should make technical changes to the language of the legislation.
However, two other lawyers who offered their assessments sharply differed, saying the Sussex council was on solid legal footing and should proceed.
Theodore Kittila, a lawyer speaking on behalf of the Caesar Rodney Institute, a free market think tank that is part of the State Policy Network, told council members that Sussex County has the authority to pass its own right-to-work law.
“You have the ability, you have the right,” Kittila said.
Kevin Fasic, a Wilmington-based lawyer who specializes in construction law, cited a ruling from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a local right-to-work ordinance in Kentucky to suggest Delaware is on the right side of the law.
Fasic noted that the U.S. Supreme Court turned away a challenge to the 6th Circuit ruling, which means the ruling in favor of the local Kentucky law stands for the time being.
However, Moore argued that Delaware is part of the federal court system’s 3rd Circuit and ample room remains for opponents to mount a legal challenge.
The Daily Signal spoke with several union members who attended the meeting, including John Brown, a retired carpenter in Lewes, Delaware, who belongs to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 173.
“When you talk to businesses, the most important reasons they cite for not locating here [in Delaware] are infrastructure and education, and the concerns over unions is very far down the list,” Brown said. “Also, we already have a very low percentage of union density in Sussex County, so if unions are the problem why are they not locating here now?”
Michael Quandt, an Ocean View resident who also belongs to Carpenters Local 173, said he anticipates that a right-to-work law will “set labor unions back by 20 years or more.”
“This proposal is not going to help young people get higher wages,” Quandt told The Daily Signal.
While acknowledging that right-to-work laws may be enticing to businesses looking to relocate, Mark Wagner, a council representative with Carpenters Local 173, told The Daily Signal that there is a downside for workers.
“Corporations and businesses will do what’s best for them, and I understand that,” Wagner said. “But in the right-to-work states, there are more safety issues and more injuries in the workplace. There are also lower wages and less of a pension. So, you have to look at the whole picture.”
Second Time Around
This is not the first time right-to-work has come up for discussion in Sussex County.
On April 21, 2015, Arlett raised the subject during a council meeting in response to a bill introduced in the state’s General Assembly. House Bill 87, which died, included amendments to create “pockets of right-to-work zones,” Arlett said.
At the time, council members wanted to know whether they had the authority to act locally on the right-to-work issue.
That question appeared to be settled in the affirmative when the Supreme Court last June declined to hear a petition seeking to overturn the ruling from the 6th Circuit that upheld a right-to-work law in Hardin County, Kentucky.
Arlett introduced the right-to-work bill during the council’s Oct. 10 meeting, on the heels of a presentation by William Pfaff, Sussex County’s new economic development director. The meeting coincided with Pfaff’s first 100 days on the job.
Of all the concerns raised during focus group meetings he held with business leaders across the state, one “stood out,” Pfaff told council members:
Regulation is the No. 1 issue that small businesses are concerned about. Time is money in business. The longer we take to make approvals, the harder it is for business to make a profit.
The regulatory burden on businesses in Delaware also came up when he met for five hours with leadership of Mountaire Farms at its facility in Millsboro, Arlett explained at an Oct. 10 council meeting.
Mountaire Farms, the seventh-largest chicken producer in the country, is one of the largest private employers in Delaware.
Arlett said he learned the company is looking to expand by 27 percent, but has decided not to do so in Delaware. He said Mountaire officials’ three main problems: inadequate infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, and burdensome regulations.
“There are numerous regulations and an unfriendly business environment that exists here in the state of Delaware,” Arlett said, just before introducing the right-to-work ordinance.
When Arlett asked Pfaff’s opinion of right-to-work laws, the economic development director replied that his wife is a schoolteacher who decided not to be part of the local teachers union.
“That was a choice she had, and that’s what was best for her,” Pfaff said.
In his presentation, Pfaff noted a distinct difference between the eastern part of Sussex County, with its popular beaches, and the western part, which is trying to attract restaurants and other businesses.
In an interview with The Daily Signal, Seaford Mayor David Genshaw indicated he shares this assessment.
Seaford is a town of about 7,000 residents that is home to a 35-acre industrial park where a thriving DuPont plant once operated.
The facility, which created thousands of local jobs, produced nylon fiber used in military parachutes. DuPont sold it in 2003, and fewer than 1oo work there now.
“Western Sussex stands to gain from right to work,” Genshaw said. “There are companies that won’t locate here because we are not right to work. Hopefully, this will change.”
Backing From ‘Undercover Boss’
Anthony Wedo attracted national attention when he appeared on the CBS reality television series “Undercover Boss” in October 2013.
Now chairman, president, and CEO of Greenville, Delaware-based Premier Restaurant Group, Wedo is widely recognized as a “turnaround CEO” with a talent for reinventing and reinvigorating brands that have not realized their full potential.
Wedo said he sees a Sussex County right-to-work law as expanding opportunities for both union and nonunion companies.
“This is a reinvigoration message,” he told The Daily Signal during a recent interview. “When implemented correctly, right to work benefits unions, it benefits workers, and it benefits companies.”
We are a wonderful state. I love Delaware, and I fly the Delaware flag in my yard.
The state is strategically located between Philadelphia and Washington. Delaware could be a terrific reinvigoration story. But we have to reach our hand more than halfway across the table to a variety of businesses. Delaware has not had a strategic plan since the Banking Act of 1982. Right to work could be the foundation for the future.
In an interview before Tuesday’s council meeting, Arlett told The Daily Signal that in the absence of a right-to-work law, Sussex County has lost opportunities “right out of the gate” because businesses make decisions on where to locate and expand based on whether a particular locality or state requires workers to join a union.
“Any business wants and desires to grow their business, keep their expenses down, and work in an environment that provides options and less regulations and right to work does this,” Arlett said, adding:
If your county is not a right-to-work county, then prospective businesses won’t consider coming. We are pro-union. We are all about providing options. But when no companies are coming, there are no opportunities for unions. Right to work is a triple win for unions, companies, and employees.