Exactly 20 years ago, West Virginians were recovering from an 11-day strike by thousands of public school teachers. Now, some state officials - including the top Democrat Party candidates for governor - are talking about legalizing collective bargaining for public employees.
That is as close to insane as any suggestion we have heard for quite some time.
About 20 states, like West Virginia, do not allow collective bargaining for public employees. Officials in several of those where it is permitted, including Ohio, are in the process of limiting or eliminating collective bargaining for workers such as teachers, police officers and others in the public sector.
In many states, government employee unions have played key roles in building up budgets taxpayers cannot afford. Enormous unfunded liabilities for public employee pensions and other benefits will handicap many states for decades to come. That is true even in states such as ours where government workers are not permitted to bargain collectively.
And in many states, including Ohio, work stoppages by public employees sometimes jeopardize public safety and children's educations.
In West Virginia, the largest group of public employees, by far, is school teachers. Most already belong to two unions, the West Virginia Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
Though the teachers' unions do not have statutory collective bargaining power, they enjoy it informally. Virtually all decisions involving their pay and benefits are made in Charleston, by governors and the state Legislature. Simply because the unions have enormous political power, they have tremendous influence - certainly more than, say, county boards of education - with state officials.
Formalizing collective bargaining for public employees in West Virginia would add to the unions' existing power. We have little doubt it would be reinforced by strikes.
Not so, insist supporters of collective bargaining. A no-strike clause would be inserted into any law on the subject, they maintain.
Twenty years ago this month, Mountain State residents learned just how much value there is in such a ban. In most counties, WVEA members went on strike for a week and a half - despite the ban on public employee strikes then. Only when then-Gov. Gaston Caperton and the Legislature bowed to many of their demands did the teachers return to work.
Under the existing system, West Virginia taxpayers have given public employees as much in terms of wages and benefits as our relatively poor state can afford. We have done more than that, really. Unfunded liabilities for pensions and benefits promised to teachers alone total somewhere around $15 billion. It is expected to take about a quarter-century to pay them off. That diverts hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayers' money from other priorities each year.
Collective bargaining for public employees already has resulted in unsustainable burdens for taxpayers in some states. We cannot afford to join states where those financial commiments have become so intolerable that massive tax increases have been necessary.
We urge candidates for governor who have said publicly they support collective bargaining for public employees to rethink - and alter - their stances. If they do not, any claims by them to be fiscally responsible will not and should not be believed by Mountain State voters.