Right-to-work divides lawmakers on party lines

DOVER — Two separate proposals by Republican lawmakers would create right-to-work zones in the state in varying capacities, but the bills are facing opposition on partisan grounds.

Senate Bill 54, introduced on April 2, would allow the Delaware Economic Development Office to establish zones for qualifying manufacturers in an effort to entice businesses to come to Delaware. Manufacturing companies hiring at least 20 employees would be eligible if DEDO head Alan Levin chooses to institute the practice, which he would have the capability to do on a case-by-case basis.

In the General Assembly’s other chamber, House Bill 87 would let counties and municipalities create right-to-work zones if the local governing body chooses to do so.

Right-to-work is a polarizing practice that limits the power of unions by banning union shops. Under the two bills, no worker would be made to join a labor group or pay fees.

Delaware AFL-CIO President Samuel Lathem opposes the measures. He said right-to-work laws allow workers to gain the benefits of a union without having to pay for them. If a case involving a non-union member goes to arbitration, “those people who are paying dues are paying for this arbitrator,” he said.

Nationally, right-to-work laws are typically favored by labor management. Nearly all of the 25 states with right-to-work laws are Republican-controlled, with most of them in the South or Midwest.

With its Democratic-dominated Legislature, Delaware seems unlikely to pass the bills.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jack Markell expressed skepticism the proposals would benefit the state.

“Studies on right-to-work laws are inconclusive at best. Gov. Markell remains focused on efforts that employers tell him are most important for job and economic growth, such as providing training for a skilled workforce and spurring innovation,” Kelly Bachman said.

Economists have debated the effects of right-to-work, with no clear conclusions reached, though supporters say the laws are attractive to companies looking to enter into new states.

“Large manufacturers are located in right-to-work states because they want flexibility to interact with employees on an individual basis and not get tied down in union things,” said Sen. Gregory Lavelle, R-Sharpley.

Delaware’s manufacturing has steeply declined, he said, and this could help remedy that.

Rep. Timothy Dukes, R-Laurel, is the sponsor of the broader House bill, which would apply to all private businesses in the areas where right-to-work zones are created. However, the zones would not apply retroactively.

“It’s important to give municipalities the flexibility to make decisions about job growth, give them little more autonomy,” he said.

Under the Senate bill, right-to-work zones would be a “tool” DEDO can use but doesn’t have to offer for every business, Sen. Lavelle said.

However, Mr. Levin said he has several questions about the proposal. Noting he has not talked to the sponsor on the specific bill, he expressed concern towns and cities assigned right-to-work zones would become focal points at the expense of other Delaware municipalities.

“I will tell you that for me right-to-work is not the panacea for our manufacturing issues,” he said.

The director cited German flooring company Uzin Utz AG, which began constructing a facility in Dover last year, as an example of Delaware’s success in creating jobs.

“While they raised the issues of right-to-work when they came in, we were able to demonstrate all the other things Dover had,” he said, praising the city’s infrastructure and workforce.

He does not expect the bill to pass.

Although Sen. Lavelle said he does not think the issue should be a partisan one, he acknowledged it will face stiff opposition. An identical proposal was filed late last session but did not get a hearing in the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee, much to the sponsor’s chagrin.

He’s hopeful the piece of legislation will be heard this time around in the same committee and said members of the minority caucus have had discussions with Democratic leadership concerning pocket vetoes.

The bill has 15 sponsors, while House Bill 87 has 10 backers. All of the supporters are Republicans.

Despite the partisan nature of the proposals, Rep. Dukes believes his measure will pass and in doing so “open the door for new jobs.”

But the union ties of some Democrats, particularly in the House, will ensure Republicans will have to fight if they want to make Delaware a right-to-work state. Rep. Gerald Brady, D-Wilmington, is the executive director of the Delaware AFL-CIO, and Reps. Michael Mulrooney, D-Pennwood, and Edward Osienski, D-Newark, have been involved in unions.

Mr. Lathem plans to meet with lawmakers to discuss the bills.
Businesses continue to come to the state despite its lack of right-to-work statutes, he said, arguing the laws limit workers’ abilities to receive high wages.

Calling right-to-work not just a union issue but a labor issue, he said he thinks the proposal will be voted down.

“Democrats understand the middle class and middle-class jobs and understand that the middle class was created by union jobs,” he said.

Sen, Lavelle for his part disagreed.

“Isn’t low wages better than no wage?” he asked. “Any job is better than no job. To block this opportunity you’re guaranteeing that the job will never come.”

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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