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West Virginia law is not employer-friendly

If West Virginians wonder why their economic boat never hits cruising speed, they need look no further than the politics embedded in state labor law, which is union-made all the way.

In August, 600-some members of Local 5668 of the United Steelworkers went on strike at the Constellium aluminum plant in Ravenswood. The strike lasted six weeks.

Salaried and non-union workers kept the plant going.

The strike ended when the company and union agreed to a five-year contract with annual raises of 2.5 percent, no premiums for health insurance until 2017 (at which time workers will begin paying 5 percent of their premium costs), and a $7,500 signing bonus for each worker.

Given the times, that seems like a good deal.

But it wasn't enough. The union then sought six weeks of unemployment compensation for the same workers. That would be worth around $2,500 each.

In December, the state's three-member Labor Dispute Tribunal ruled in favor of the union.

The company appealed the tribunal's decision to give unemployment benefits to people who chose to go on strike. Last week, the company got the bad news.

"The West Virginia Unemployment Compensation Board of Review has unanimously affirmed the decision of a three-judge labor dispute panel that ruled claimants are not disqualified from seeking unemployment benefits during last year's labor dispute at Constellium Rolled Products in Ravenswood," Workforce West Virginia spokeswoman Courtney Sisk said in a statement emailed to the Daily Mail.

If all claimants were to receive the maximum award, the cost to the state's Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund could exceed $1.5 million.

State law also has the effect of raising Constellium's unemployment compensation trust fund premiums.

"We can't estimate at this point what the employer's tax rate will be for 2013. It will go up based on the claims filed but we can't say how much," Sisk said.

Giving unemployment benefits to strikers - essentially forcing employers to subsidize union activity - is a long-standing tradition in West Virginia.

It's just one of the hidden levers that keep the state uncompetitive when it comes to investments in new or even existing plants.

West Virginia law is what legislators make it.

They can wring their hands until they're blue in the face about economic growth and diversification. But until they change laws such as this one, West Virginia's top export will continue to be its children, who have to move to other states to find jobs.



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