Sussex council hears testimony on proposed right-to-work ordinance

Rob Arlett

DOVER — A proposed right-to-work ordinance in Sussex County drew public input Tuesday from speakers on both sides of the issue as concerns about the legality of its wording prevented the county council from formally introducing the measure.

The ordinance could be introduced by Councilman Rob Arlett and discussed by Sussex County Council as soon as next week.

Right-to-work laws, enacted in 28 states, protect workers from being forced to join unions as a condition of employment.

Supporters say right-to-work laws give employees a choice as to whether they want to join a union and are desired by businesses, while opponents counter the laws could lead to the destruction of unions and a shift in power in the employee-employer relationship.

Previous efforts by Delaware lawmakers to push right-to-work laws in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly have failed.

On Tuesday the five members of Sussex County Council, all Republicans, heard about an hour of testimony from attendees, with passions evident: Council President Michael Vincent had to instruct the crowd several times not to applaud after public comments.

The speakers were almost perfectly split, with 11 speaking against right-to-work and 10 expressing support.

Members of the Caesar Rodney Institute, a right-leaning thinktank, urged council members to pass the proposal, while several union members took the opposite stance.

Opponents blasted the idea, claiming it will lead to “economic devastation” and cause employees to be “at the mercy of management.”

“You will not see an increase if right-to-work for less becomes law in Sussex County,” Eric Masten said. “It is a bad law.”

But others believe it would be a powerful asset to help business development.

Pointing to the days when DuPont employed hundreds of people at its nylon factory in Seaford, Kevin Burnett said right-to-work could have helped bring “prosperity” back to Sussex County.

“I personally see the proposed ordinance as another tool in the toolbox,” he said.

Right-to-work states tend to be concentrated in the South and Midwest. The closest such state to Delaware is Virginia.

State Sen. Bryant Richardson, R-Laurel, spoke in favor of the measure and said four other Senate Republicans have expressed support as well.

“If we’re concerned about the prosperity of the working families and all that, what we really need to do is bring some jobs,” Sen. Richardson said.

Opponents were insistent the law would devastate unions and lower wages. John Rodriguez said right-to-work is “about dividing and conquering the workplace.”

Until a 2016 ruling by a federal court, it was generally thought counties and cities were prohibited from passing right-to-work laws, Sussex County’s attorney, Everett Moore, told County Council.

The court that made the decision does not have jurisdiction over Delaware, however, and Mr. Moore expressed uncertainty about the legality of Mr. Arlett’s measure.

As currently written, it does not comply with the Delaware Code, but even if it is revised it may still be invalid, Mr. Moore said.

Mr. Arlett, who was rebuked by Council President Michael Vincent for not working with Mr. Moore on the statute beforehand, said he is eager to change the wording and hopes to introduce the measure next week to allow for further public discussion.

Since March, Delaware’s unemployment rate has increased while the national jobless rate has declined.

Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, is opposed to right-to-work laws.

“The governor does not believe that right-to-work laws would move Delaware’s economy forward, or help the working men and women of our state continue to earn a decent living,” a spokesman said in an email.

A further question to the governor’s office about the legality of the proposed ordinance was not answered.

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