The is the final installment in a series focusing on the
issues, records and platforms of West Virginia's candidates for
governor. Today's issue is labor.
Rep. Bob Wise and Gov. Cecil Underwood agree that
right-to-work legislation would be divisive in West Virginia. But they
disagree on most other issues affecting labor.
The Underwood administration pushed hard to dismiss $200 million
in Workers' Compensation lawsuits against big coal companies for debts
incurred by contractors who mined their coal.
Wise said, "Trying to dismiss them is like getting a house 95
percent built, then walking away from it. It makes no sense."
Wise backed a state law to hire construction workers living
within 75 miles of tax-funded construction projects. Underwood
vetoed a bill in 1998 that would have tested the idea.
In right-to-work states, workers may refuse to join unions and pay dues
even after a majority of their fellow workers vote for union
representation. Yet unions in those states must still handle grievances
for workers who do not pay dues.
"West Virginians often say, 'Thank goodness for Mississippi and
Arkansas,'" Wise said. "They have right-to-work. If you look at
right-to-work states. I see very little correlation between right-to-work
legislation and economic development."
Rob Blackstone, Underwood's campaign spokesman, said the governor is
"probably more disposed to look favorably on [right-to-work legislation].
But he recognizes political reality in West Virginia today. The
divisiveness it would cause would prevent us from being productive on
other issues. It is no part of his political agenda at this point."
As a congressman, Wise consistently voted to raise the federal
minimum wage. Underwood believes the wage is not a political issue
on the state level.
Wise said, "The only pay increases a large percentage of West
Virginia's work force receives come when the federal government increases
the minimum wage.
"I remember working for a hospital for the minimum wage. The only
collective bargaining agent I ever had was the U.S. Congress.
"The minimum wage still purchases far less than it did 25 years ago. We
are trying to encourage people to work, to get them off the welfare rolls.
One way we can do that is pay livable wages," Wise said.
The federal minimum wage reached a peak in 1968, when it was worth
$7.67 in 1999 dollars. The minimum wage in 1999 was $5.15.
Steve Shuklian, a Marshall University economist, said, "In 1999, 37
percent of jobs in West Virginia paid below the wage necessary to lift a
family of four above the [federal] poverty level with a year-round,
full-time worker." That wage was $17,024.
Workers' Compensation Fund
The Workers' Compensation Fund has been a focus of political
controversy for years. Many businesses complain premiums are too high.
Workers often complain benefits are too tight.
In May 1999, Employment Programs Commissioner William Vieweg stirred
controversy when he worked with the Employment Programs Performance
Council to dismiss 19 large coal companies from $200 million in lawsuits
for overdue workers' compensation payments.
Throughout his gubernatorial campaign, Wise criticized the
Underwood administration for trying to dismiss lawsuits against
major coal companies whose contractors were delinquent.
"These suits are a chance to recover up to $200 million that could be
used to help keep Workers' Compensation premiums lower for small
businesses," Wise said on Saturday.
"Second, the state already invested $3 million to prepare these
lawsuits. If the governor thought there was a questionable legal issue at
that point, he should have gone ahead and tried one of them."
Wise said dismissal of the coal lawsuits also raises an ethical
question. Underwood and Vieweg were both executives for Island
Creek Coal Co., whose contractors owe $47 million, the biggest debt of
"The legal canon of ethics requires a lawyer to avoid even the
appearance of a conflict of interest. If there was even an appearance of a
conflict, Underwood and Vieweg should have gone ahead and tried one
of these cases," Wise said.
Blackstone called Wise's campaign ads about the coal lawsuits "lies."
He says taxpayers and small businesses bear the brunt of Workers' Comp
costs related to the lawsuits.
"That is just not true. For him to suggest that taxpayers are involved
in Workers' Comp shows he does not know how state government operates or
that he is lying on purpose. Taxpayers don't pay Workers' Comp. Businesses
do," Blackstone said.
Wise said, "Dismissing these lawsuits leaves important questions
hanging in the air. Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman stated the
whole thing 'smelled like a rotting carp,' even when she voted to send the
cases back to circuit court.
"This sends a message: 'If you are big enough, you may be able to get
out of meeting your obligations.' Small businesses then have to pay."
Dan Page, Underwood's press spokesman, said the large coal companies
"The big coal companies that were sued never owed the money. Their