Voices heard at County’s public hearing on right-to-work

Date Published: 
January 5, 2018

Coastal Point • Maria Counts: County officials listen to members of the public weigh-in on the proposed ‘right-to-work’ ordinance put forth by Councilman Rob Arlett.Coastal Point • Maria Counts: County officials listen to members of the public weigh-in on the proposed ‘right-to-work’ ordinance put forth by Councilman Rob Arlett.The Sussex County Council on Tuesday held a public hearing on a proposed “right-to-work” ordinance. The ordinance, “relating to the promotion of economic development and commerce by regulation of certain voluntary payments required of employees in Sussex County,” Sussex County Councilman Rob Arlett said, would be to “provide that no employee covered by the National Labor Relations Act be required to join or pay dues to a union, or refrain from joining a union, as a condition of employment.”

The proposed ordinance, which was introduced in October, was brought forth to council by Arlett — who, at the Jan. 2 meeting said, “We are here today not to hear from Rob Arlett. This is a day not about Rob Arlett, not a day about this council. This is a day about this community. We are here today about a few things, because this subject — first and foremost, the people of this county expect and desire jobs…

“As elected officials, we have the responsibility to do what we can to do, so I look at this room, I look around, and everyone has the same desire... We all want to be able to provide for our families. We all have dreams; we all have aspirations. The reality — what is it we are to do to foster that? We’re here today to hear from the community…”

County Attorney Everett Moore had said at the council’s Oct. 24, 2017, meeting that it was his opinion that the County did not have legal authority to pass Arlett’s proposed ordinance, after reviewing Delaware’s Home Rule Statute — which includes a clause stating, “This grant of power does not include the power to enact private or civil law concerning civil relationships except as an incident to exercise and express their grant in power.”

“I read that as prohibiting — that this does not give Sussex County the grant of authority under our Home Rule to pass such an ordinance,” he said in October.

If the ordinance was passed, Moore had warned, the County would face “very, very expensive litigation.”

“I also believe there would be litigation on multiple fronts, including federal and state,” he said, adding that opposing parties would most likely file for injunctive relief, which would put a hold on the right-to-work legislation going into effect. “That would mean that, during the entire litigation, you would not have this ordinance.”

He added that those opposed to the legislation could also review the County’s record, playing tape of Moore publically advising against the ordinance.

The five-hour public hearing on Jan. 2 had about 50 people speak, with council chambers packed to standing-room-only and other County building areas filled with interested parties. Protesters against the ordinance set up on The Circle with signs and, on East Market Street, an inflatable “fat cat” symbolically choking out a union worker, as well as inflatable rats (one of which had a picture of Arlett attached to it), along with an LED sign truck.

The County has received numerous letters both in favor of and in opposition to the proposed ordinance, including a number of legal opinions from attorneys in the state — one being from the Solicitor General in the Attorney General’s Office.

Attorney Ted Kittila, representing the free-market think-tank the Caesar Rodney Institute, spoke in favor of the proposed legislation, stating that Delaware is in the minority of states that does not have right-to-work legislation in place.

“I want to see this county succeed, and I want to see the state of Delaware succeed,” he said. “You have the power to do that.”

Kittila said that, in his professional opinion, the County was granted the authority to pass the ordinance based on the Home Rule Act, passed 1970 in the General Assembly of Delaware.

Economist David Stevenson, also of the Caesar Rodney Institute, said Delaware has been in trouble over the last decade, growing economically by 0.4 percent a year — a third of the national average, according to the I.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. He noted that, in 2017, Delaware was only one of four states that saw unemployment rise.

“This is not anti-union,” he said of right-to-work legislation, adding that Delaware’s union membership peaked in the 1990s.

Master Interiors owner Lyle Humpton said he has an open shop, which allows for growth in his business.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “Do you want the government in the way of your growth and your future?”

State Sen. Bryant Richardson also spoke in support of the legislation, noting that he believes the right-to-work legislation would help grow the economy.

“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 the right-to-work states…”

Richardson commended the Seaford Town Council, which recently passed its own right-to-work legislation.

“The eastern side of the county has the ocean and a vigorous tourism industry to keep it moving ahead. We have some of the best farmland in the United States on the western side of the county and a rich heritage of which we can boast. 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.”

Delaware Republican Party Secretary Carol Bodine, also an Ocean View Town Council member, urged the all-Republican council to vote with their party.

“Right-to-work is a Republican issue,” said Bodine. “My guess is that all 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 has attorneys ready to work for you. The reason we haven’t handed you the money is you haven’t voted on the issue yet. If you have a personal connection to unions that makes you feel like you can’t vote properly, you can recuse yourself. If Sussex County supports the right-to-work, it will boomerang on the East Coast, you’ll see.”

Cathy Watts, the president of the Sussex County Republican Women’s Club, said the organization voted unanimously to support the right-to-work legislation.

Laurel resident Mike Horsey said he has nothing to gain financially from the legislation being passed, stating he was in favor of the ordinance.

“All we’re asking is for a chance for the kids on the western side of the county,” he said. “What I do know is, what we’ve been doing so far today has not been working.”

Milton resident Kevin Burdette also spoke in favor of the ordinance, stating, “Unions have been lackadaisical” in Sussex County.

Burdette played videos from the SussexWorks.com website, a pro-right-to-work website, which does not give information as to whom funded the site, but states, “It’s time to jump start the Delaware economy. That begins with right-to-work in Sussex County.” However, during his presentation, Burdette said he paid for the videos to be made.

While the videos played, many union members in attendance stood and turned their backs to the council.

Opponents include

attorneys, union

members and more

More of the speakers at the public hearing voiced their opposition to the legislation, including Bethany Beach resident Mike Fanning, a retired attorney who focused on labor law.

“If you do adopt this ordinance, you will immediately be involved in two separate court houses — the federal lawsuit and a state lawsuit — that will be addressing two separate issues…

“I couldn’t disagree more with Ted’s opinion,” said Fanning of Kittila’s legal opinion that the County has the legal authority to pass the ordinance.

“If you are going to adopt an ordinance that will regulate civil relationships — that’s what you’ll be doing here, you’ll be regulating business. You’ll be telling businesses they no longer can enter into these kinds of contracts that they’ve always been able to enter into… If you’re going to regulate civil relationships, you can only do it if you have the specific grant of authority from the state legislature, and that’s not here.”

Fanning said he sees any case arguing that the County has the authority to do otherwise as a “dead loser.”

“Why walk yourself into this legal morass when you have so much more important things to do with your time and our resources?” he asked, being met with applause from many in attendance at the hearing.

Former County Administrator Joe Conaway, who spoke on behalf of the Sussex County Economic Action Committee, said right-to-work hasn’t really been an area of concern in the county.

“The business community has not expressed any interest in right-to-work,” said Conaway. “What they are really concerned about it the availability of appropriate infrastructure; a well-trained workforce; excellent schools; widely available broadband; regulations that are clear, consistent, and tidy; affordable housing that is county-wide; and sites that are move-in ready.”

Conaway said it is time to end the “divisive discussion that will result in a loss of economic development opportunities.”

He added that, in his 45-year involvement in economic development, he has yet to talk to any business that would not come to a state because it does not have right-to-work legislation in place.

“It has never been an issue in all the jobs that have been created in this county.”

Conaway said Moore’s ruling regarding the County’s lack of authority in the matter was “completely correct” and commended him for his integrity and knowledge of the law.

“This causes problems that, I think, are better placed somewhere else, but not in Sussex County.”

Milton resident John Dean, who said he is opposed to the ordinance, said he was worried that the council would potentially vote in favor of something they were publically advised against by their own attorney, whom the council had unanimously voted earlier in the day to reappoint to that position.

“It concerns me, as I sat here earlier today as you reappointed Mr. Moore as your attorney — as a taxpayer, it concerns me that you are not taking his advice and [are] moving ahead with this illegal activity.”

Georgetown resident Jane Hovington also voiced her opposition to the proposed ordinance, saying the County has more important things to focus on.

“Our County Attorney has said it; the Attorney General has said it — this is something you cannot do… You’re taking the tax payers dollars, about $8,000 a day… What — we’ve wasted $24,000 to discuss something that should never have been…

“There are far more important issues besides this issue of right-to-work… In our making America better, we could use our money a lot more wisely than we are doing here today.”

Milton resident Kerry Stahl, who noted that she was raised in Lewes and attended Cape Henlopen High School, attended university in North Carolina, where she went on to work as an educator.

“As I’m sure you are aware, North Carolina is a right-to-work state. That gave me the right to a starting salary below the national poverty line. That gave me the right to work many unpaid hours,” she said. “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 state of crisis.

“I left North Carolina because a right-to-work state equals the right to be an unprotected and unvalued employee. I urge you council members — do not allow this movement to creep into our state… I offer you my story, and I beg you to learn from it.”

Millsboro resident Al Brocato, a union carpenter of 44 years, said he is opposed to right-to-work. He said those who are trained under the union receive a four-year apprenticeship, wherein students go to school and work throughout their education.

He said that, when their education begins, the workers — many of whom are just out of high school — are then paid throughout their education, and receive health benefits, a pension and annuity. He invited the council to an open house at DelTech to learn more about the education process.

He went on to share that the benefits allotted through the union to his family while his wife, Rose, battled breast cancer let his family focus on fighting her illness, rather than focusing on the cost of treatment.

“The treatments she had cost anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000, and that was every other week,” he said. “During the treatment, we didn’t have to worry about money. That was the best thing for Rose. She didn’t have to worry about if the bills were going to be paid, because we knew the Carpenter’s Union was taking care of us, and they still take care of me today.

“This is why I pay my union dues. It’s more than just taking money from people — it’s really more than that. Rose would tell you this, but Rose died June 27 at 8:30 a.m. of this past year. She passed away knowing that our hospital bills would be paid for and I wouldn’t have to sell the house and sell whatever else I had to pay Beebe Hospital. 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 the government?”

The Rev. Jermain Johnson of the United Commercial Workers voiced his opposition to the legislation as well, stating the benefits of the union have been a “blessing” to him and his family.

“This right-to-work — there is nothing ‘right’ about it,” he said. “When you shut unions down, you shut our voice down.”

He also likened the proposed legislation to a gym membership fee.

“I’m a member of a gym, and we have a monthly membership fee,” he said. “I was thinking, if you took the language of this ordinance and put it on that gym, and you defunded that gym and told it that gym could not have any more membership fees, that gym would shut down… I believe this ordinance is about shutting unions down.”

Lynne Betts of Seaford said “right-to-work” is a misnomer.

“Everyone has a right to work,” she said. “Having the choice here to collectively bargain and get good-paying jobs is imperative.”

Milton resident Tom Jones, a member of the United Steel Workers, said he was also opposed to the ordinance. He called attention to the Taft Hartley Act of 1947 — as many speakers opposing the legislation did — and specific clauses thereof, which regulate unions.

“Under federal law, no one can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. As the Supreme Court has made clear, workers cannot be forced to pay dues used for political purposes...”

Jones said that, if the ordinance were to be passed, if a non-union worker who was mistreated by an employer, the union would be required to prosecute the grievance, just as it would for a dues-paying member.

“Non-dues-paying workers would also receive higher wages and benefits through their dues-paying coworkers… The only thing right-to-work does is make that person not pay the right-to-agency fee…”

Patricia Lake of Seaford said she stood before council to oppose the ordinance because, after working for Vlasic Pickle — which was later purchased by Pinnacle Foods — she has witnessed first-hand the difference between a union job and non-union job.

She noted that, at the start of her employment, Vlasic in Millsboro did not have a union, while other Vlasic plants in Michigan did.

“We didn’t get our overtime like the unionized plants in Michigan. When holidays came around, they sent all the work down to the Delaware plant, and we made $2 to $3 less than the Michigan plants.”

Lake said she was one of the original workers who helped create the union at the Delaware plant.

“I’m 70 years old. If I went back to work tomorrow, it would not be in a non-union plant.”

Formal opinion

from Moore to come

Following the hearing, Arlett read into the record some of the letters received regarding the proposed legislation, although they were already part of the hearing record.

Council President Michael Vincent asked Arlett, who had put forth the proposed ordinance, about the cost to the County if it was passed.

“I know, in the proposed ordinance, it talks about the duties of the county administrator to investigate complaints and whatever. Have you done any cost analysis of what it would cost the County? ... Have you done that as your research on your ordinance?”

“I have not,” said Arlett.

Councilman George Cole motioned to defer a vote, due to the amount of time and public input the council had received on Tuesday.

When it came time for him to vote on whether or not to defer the vote, Arlett went on to say he was in a “quagmire.”

“I think we heard lots of great testimony today… What concerns me today, as we’re going to do this, is a lot of folks today made reference to the verbal legal opinion done on Oct. 24 by our County Attorney.

“I will tell you, I respect him greatly. I admire him and will always do so. What concerns me, though — the legal opinions and letters that are in the public record that is now closed, does not include a written legal opinion from our attorney. A lot of people were making comments and referencing something that doesn’t exist. For that, I’ll tell you, it’s unfortunate. Even though we were assured we were going to get one, and we don’t have one now… I’m not sure one can provide legal opinions on something that doesn’t exist.”

The council voted 5-0 to defer their vote.

Vincent subsequently posed a question to Moore: “You are our attorney. You sit here today and hear everything we heard… It would be my thought that you will now prepare your opinion and that’s allowed to be given to us at any point in time.”

“Yes,” said Moore.

“You’re going to do that?” asked Vincent.

“Yes,” said Moore.

“Just as long as we’re all on the same page here,” said Vincent, before moving to adjourn the meeting.