Delaware House panel OKs pro-union bill

Dale Kerns of Newark, left, and James Vanderslice of Dover were among the hundreds of contractors that protested outside Legistalive Hall Wednesday against HB 283. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Dale Kerns of Newark, left, and James Vanderslice of Dover were among the hundreds of contractors that protested outside Legistalive Hall Wednesday against HB 283. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — More than 100 people packed the House chamber Wednesday as the Labor Committee debated a Democratic-backed bill that gives unions greater control over state-funded construction projects.

The committee voted to release the legislation to the floor, despite facing a hostile audience that booed at the meeting’s closure. Rep. Michael Ramone, R-Pike Creek Valley, was the only committee member to vote against releasing House Bill 283.

The bill is officially known as the Veterans, Skilled Workers and Community Workforce Act. It mandates 30 percent of workers on state projects come from the representative district where the work takes place and also would require 5 percent of the workforce be made up of military veterans.

The provision that drew the ire of most of the people in attendance is one that would require government agencies to “directly negotiate in good faith a project labor agreement with one or more labor organizations engaged in the construction industry; or condition the award of a contract to a contractor upon a requirement that the contractor negotiate in good faith a project labor agreement with one or more labor organizations engaged in the construction industry,” according to text of the legislation.

Hundreds of contractors climb the west side steps of Legislative Hall to protest HB 283 Wednesday afternoon.

Hundreds of contractors climb the west side steps of Legislative Hall to protest HB 283 Wednesday afternoon.

The measure, its supporters say, is intended to keep dollars in Delaware and benefit local districts, but several speakers Wednesday said it was designed to help labor groups.

Many laborers, some wearing reflective vests, were in the audience. Some wore stickers stating their disapproval of the bill. Spectators booed on multiple occasions and broke out into loud applause at the end of every comment from members of the public speaking against the proposal.

“Any way you spin it, it is a union bill to put more unions to work,” said Ralph Degli Obizzi of the mechanical contracting company Ralph Degli Obizzi and Sons.

Some protested that the legislation, if it becomes law, would have a dramatically negative impact on their businesses.

“We’re not looking to put everybody out of work,” committee head and main sponsor Rep. Michael Mulrooney, D-New Castle, insisted.

As he detailed the legislation early on, deferring to Delaware Building and Construction Trades Council President James Maravelias at points, a spectator yelled out in opposition. A man in the audience protested the bill would take work away from non-union businesses, or merit shops.

The west side entrance of Legislative Hall was blocked with hundreds of contractors wanting to get inside to have their voices heard on House Bill 283.

The west side entrance of Legislative Hall was blocked with hundreds of contractors wanting to get inside to have their voices heard on House Bill 283.

Jim Betley, president of County Group Companies, said he felt so strongly about the proposal he was paying employees to attend the hearing and show their opposition.

“If it’s not broke, why fix it?” he said of the bill.

Supporters claimed the legislation would help veterans and decrease the state’s unemployment rate. It also would benefit women and minorities, Mr. Maravelias said.

“The biggest debate in the country now is the livable wages,” said Vincent Ascione with the Delaware Building and Construction Trades Council.

Mr. Ascione was among those insisting they do not think ill of nonunion workers but believe the bill would help the state.

The best efforts of supporters were not enough for many of the business owners and laborers present, however.

“It appears to us this is about 10 percent of the construction workforce trying to control 100 percent of the public construction budget, and we think that’s just plain wrong,” said Paul Morrill of the Committee of 100, a business group.

The bill is set to go to the floor, but Rep. Mulrooney said he first wants to iron out a few issues raised Wednesday and check with the Department of Justice to ensure the idea is constitutional.

Twenty House Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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