THE West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy issued a report, "From Weirton Steel to Wal-Mart," which discusses the state's economic transition as mining and manufacturing jobs gradually gave way to low-wage jobs in the service sector.
"In 1979, the state's largest private-sector industry was manufacturing, with over 131,000 workers, or 21 percent of the state's private sector workforce.
"Today, only seven percent of private-sector employment, or about 52,000 workers, is in manufacturing." Health care and social assistance, the largest sector today, pays its 122,000 workers an average of $15,000 less than manufacturing, the report says,
While the report offers helpful data, there are many reasons for the decline in manufacturing jobs, most having more to do with global economics than local. Among them is that manufacturing and the coal industry have become far more efficient.
For example, according to national industry estimates, miners produced 3,630 tons of coal on average in 1980, compared to 14,050 tons by 2006. Consequently, coal employment nationally fell from 228,569 to 82,595 in 2006.
As could be expected, a drop in good-paying mining and manufacturing jobs also caused a drop in average wages.
In 1979, West Virginia's median hourly wage was about 95 cents per hour higher than the U.S. average, the report said. Today, the average job in state pays about 17 percent less than the national average.
The Center said it is no coincidence the "decline in wages have coincided with declining union membership. For much of the past 60 years, West Virginia had much higher rates of union membership than other states."
What the report doesn't say is that the higher than average wages and the high rate of union membership - 38.3 percent in West Virginia in 1981 - may have played a role in making the state less competitive.
Continued demands by unions for higher pay and more generous benefits, along with a readiness to strike, besieged many a manufacturer and energy company.
Politically, unions helped elect labor-friendly justices to the state Supreme Court that turned the judiciary into what some called a "judicial hellhole."
While trial lawyers benefited from irrational decisions such as the Mandolidis case, which expanded workers' rights to sue their employer, the employees paid the price as companies stopped re-investing and moved their capital to more favorable climes.
However, new technology to extract gas from shale formations like the Marcellus have given West Virginia another chance. The cheap gas could buttress and expand the 9,637 jobs remaining in the chemical industry, bringing in even more manufacturing jobs.
That is a rare opportunity. West Virginians should not allow shortsighted political thinking and unreasonable labor demands to let it slip away.