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March 2018

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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Union Activists Help Kill Right-to-Work in Delaware,
but the Fight Goes On

The IBEW and other unions scored a massive win in Delaware early this year, when the GOP-dominated Sussex County Council voted 4-1 against a proposed right-to-work law.

"I'm relieved," said Rick Fridell, a business agent for Philadelphia Local 126, which represents about 350 tree trimmers, outside electrical workers, power lineman and telecommunications employees. "I'm not happy. I know this fight is not over."

It's unclear if the proposed ordinance could have been enforced. Delaware does not have a statewide right-to-work law and attorney general Matt Denn said the county ordinance would violate state statutes. The county council's own lawyer urged members not to pass the ordinance, saying the county would incur significant legal fees in a court battle it likely would lose.

Still, the Jan. 9 vote was a victory for working families in Delaware, which has long been a Democratic stronghold but has seen support for right-to-work laws grow, especially in the politically conservative southern half of the state. Delaware is the second-smallest state in the country and has just three counties, so a county-wide right-to-work law likely would have a larger impact than in most states.

It's also just one battleground in working families' fight against conservative attempts to pass right-to-work laws across the country — and even at the federal level. In Ohio, two legislators have introduced state constitutional amendments to implement a right-to-work law there, even though voters resoundingly rejected a similar effort six years ago.

There were reminders during the vote in Sussex County that Delaware's fight is far from over. Some members said they were voting against the measure because of the anticipated legal costs, volunteering that they would work with legislators to enact a right-to-work law statewide.

Still, at least one member admitted there was no evidence a right-to-work law would spur business development. Council president Michael Vincent said no businesses had told him they would relocate to Sussex County if the ordinance had passed.

"They don't care," Wilmington, Del., Local 313 Business Manager Bobby Murrian said. "They placated their base and gave a little speech saying they would be for it at the state level. They just kicked it further up the road."

Right-to-work laws allow employees to opt out of paying union membership dues, even when they enjoy the benefits of a union contract. They undercut wages and benefits for both union and nonunion workers, studies show.

Democrats have controlled the state House, Senate and governor's office in Delaware for more than 20 years, but Murrian cautioned not to read much into that, noting the state's loose banking regulations and the fact it is one of five states without a sales tax. Even Democrats often bow to corporate interests because of that.

So, Murrian said, IBEW members and other working family advocates must stay vigilant. "People are under the impression this is a labor-friendly state," he said. "It's not. It's a blue state. There's a difference."

That was evident when the Republican minority introduced legislation on Jan. 9 to weaken the state's prevailing wage law. Some observers think it has a chance to pass as part of a budget compromise. Prevailing wage laws set wages and working conditions before contractors can bid on a publicly-funded project.

The election of President Trump emboldened right-to-work advocates, including groups affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes sample legislation for state governments that harms working families, Fridell said. Rob Arlett, the lone council member to vote for the ordinance, was Trump's campaign chairman in Delaware.

"All we have to do is lose a couple of elections and this could be a right-to-work state," said Fridell, who works out of Local 126's office in Bridgeville, Del.

The five county council members are all Republicans. They were expected to vote on the proposed law during a Jan. 2 meeting, but right-to-work opponents packed the meeting room and drew a large rally outside. The vote was pushed back one week, when it ultimately failed.

IBEW members and other unions again turned out in force. Fridell noted that Local 126 is at full employment, so members attending took vacation time or other leave to attend. Some Local 126 members in Sussex County are volunteer firemen, he said. Many attended a fire department community event the weekend before the vote wearing their IBEW shirts.

"That has a much bigger impact than anything that comes out of the Local 126 office," he said. "It's good to see them out there wearing their colors and telling their neighbors what is going on. That is what we need at the end of the day."

Local 126 Business Manager Richard Muttick agrees the fight isn't over, but praised Delaware's legislative branch for standing strong against such legislation.

"I would like to thank Gov. John Carney, Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long and the other representatives for not allowing the union-busting, right-to-work agenda to pass in the Delaware General Assembly," Muttick said. "We must keep the political representatives accountable for their decisions and educate the membership on how they voted."

Right-to-work has been a hot-button issue across America in recent years. Last year, the GOP-controlled New Hampshire Legislature refused to pass a right-to-work law. Voters in Missouri used a petition drive to force a statewide vote on a right-to-work law passed by the Republican-dominated legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Eric Greitens. The law is not being enforced, pending this November's election results.

And the battles go on. In Ohio, legislators also introduced amendments to seriously weaken or do away with prevailing wage laws and project labor agreements. PLAs help ensure fair wages for workers and give local contractors and businesses a better chance to bid successfully on the work. They also help keep more tax dollars in local communities and provided a higher-skilled work force, including IBEW members.

"The news from Delaware is welcome, but IBEW members and their loved ones must remember the assault on working families will only intensify," International President Lonnie R. Stephenson said. "The anti-worker corporate interests have spent billions to destroy gains we've made during the last 125 years, but we must continue to stand together. Our recent victories are a reminder of what's possible when we do."


An inflatable fat cat holds a picture of Sussex County, Del., councilman Rob Arlett before the council voted down a proposed right-to-work law Jan. 9.