Vote on Sussex right-to-work law postponed

DOVER — After hearing from more than 40 people over the course of four-plus hours, Sussex County Council voted to defer action on a proposal that would make the county a right-to-work locale.

Right-to-work laws protect workers from being forced to join a union as a condition of employment at a business. Such laws exist in 28 states, although no East Coast state north of Virginia has them.

Supporters say right-to-work statutes allow workers to keep more of their hard-earned pay and would lead to more companies investing in Sussex County.

Opponents argue such policies shift the balance of workplace power toward management and will result in lower wages.

Proponents specifically pointed to blue-collar jobs, arguing right-to-work laws are key to bringing manufacturing jobs back to the First State.

Councilman Rob Arlett introduced the ordinance in October, a few weeks before the Delaware Department of Justice offered its take: Sussex County cannot on its own become a right-to-work county.

“The county has no express legal authority to affect these kinds of civil relationships,” state solicitor Aaron Goldstein wrote in a letter to County Council. “It does not have the express legal authority to establish new causes of action in this field. It does not have the express legal authority to confer legal or equitable jurisdiction upon state courts as set forth in the ordinance.”

The legality of the measure has been a point of contention for both sides. Sussex County’s attorney, Everett Moore, told County Council in October he does not believe councilmen can legally enact the proposal.

A 2016 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit authorized several counties in Kentucky to pass right-to-work laws on their own, but Delaware is not in the Sixth Circuit.

Recent efforts to pass right-to-work in the Democratic-held General Assembly have failed, and Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, is opposed to it.

Right-to-work laws are primarily supported by Republicans, and while a majority of Sussex County voters are members of the GOP, most of the speakers Tuesday were against right-to-work.

The standing-room-only crowd included many union members, and applause after anti-right-to-work speeches was common, repeatedly causing Council President Michael Vincent to bang his gavel.

Opponents of the proposal attacked it from several angles, claiming it will lead to decreased pay, more workplace accidents and a major decline in the power of unions.

“It’s about defunding, dividing and destroying the ability of the union to negotiate on behalf of the worker,” Jermaine Johnson said.

Many people noted the Department of Justice has opined Sussex cannot pass right-to-work, meaning any attempt to do so would be met with a legal challenge from the state. Multiple speakers recommended County Council focus instead on infrastructure to help bring businesses to Delaware’s southernmost county.

“Why walk yourself into this legal morass when you have so much more important things to do with your time and our resources?” Mike Fanning said.

But others called for Sussex County Council to let the U.S. courts decide.

Ted Kittila, a lawyer representing the conservative Caesar Rodney Institute, said council members have the power to approve the ordinance because the General Assembly did not specifically prohibit it when granting Sussex some autonomy with a home-rule act in 1970.

Others protested that unions are not beneficial to many workers, with Don Petitmermet saying he fell for a “scam” when he temporarily joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and paid dues.

“I didn’t need no union to help me. I didn’t need no fat cat to pay to have a job,” Dan Kramer said.

Cathy Watts praised right-to-work as giving employees the power of choice and urged council members “to vote to do the right thing for our citizens.”

While both sides presented statistics speakers claimed offered a perfect summation of right-to-work, it’s a complex subject. Because of other factors, such as right-to-work states generally having other pro-business laws as well, judging the effectiveness of the policy can be difficult, and statistics alone may not tell the whole story. Conflicting results have also appeared in some studies.

Further action involving the ordinance are not yet scheduled.

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