Tackle tough labor issues
West Virginia Sen. Jack Yost, D-Wellsburg, is right: Lawmakers in the past have not devoted enough energy to dealing with labor issues. To remedy that, state Senate and House of Delegates leaders agreed with Yost’s recommendation that a new interim committee be formed.
The question now is whether the panel, with Yost as its chairman, will tackle the really tough, important labor-related issues.
Members of the committee held their first formal meeting this week, while legislators were in Wheeling as part of state sesquicentennial observances. Yost said the new Labor and Worker Safety Issues Committee will allow members to discuss and investigate important questions outside the regular annual 60-day session of the Legislature.
But the panel’s agenda does not yet include issues critical to West Virginians’ futures – such as prevailing wage and right-to-work legislation.
About half the states, including some with the fastest growing economies in the nation, have right-to-work laws. West Virginia is among those that lack such protection for workers.
In essence, right-to-work laws prohibit closed shops in which employees can be required to join labor unions. They do not handicap union organizers unfairly. Private sector workers who want to join unions still are perfectly free to do so.
In deciding where to locate new plants and other types of businesses, private sector executives often consider whether a state has right-to-work protection. Those without it are at an economic development disadvantage.
Prevailing wage laws hurt taxpayers even more directly, driving up the cost of construction projects funded with public money.
West Virginia’s statute requires that workers on such projects be paid “prevailing wage” as determined by the state Department of Labor. But the agency’s method of setting prevailing wage is weighted heavily toward scales paid by companies with union workers.
A 2009 study by West Virginia University found an enormous gap between prevailing wage levels set by the state and amounts actually paid to workers. Statewide, the prevailing wage requirement was nearly 49 percent higher than the average true market wage paid, WVU researchers found. For one occupation, roofers, the gap was a whopping 107.13 percent.
That costs West Virginia taxpayers millions of dollars a year. It makes it tougher to build new schools, highways and other public facilities.
Doing something about issues such as prevailing wage and right-to-work ought to be at the top of the Yost committee’s agenda.