At the end of a speech in Southwest Virginia recently, Republican gubernatorial candidate John N. Dalton held up a piece of garden hose. That, he predicted, was all homeowners would have available to fight fire it public employees ware allowed to bargain collectively for their wages and working conditions.

"That's what you get, folks, when you have collective bargaining," he said. The prop has since disappeared from Dalton's reportoire, but the issue has not.

The issue of collective bargaining for public employees is so emotionally charged and complex that the positions of four of the six candidates running for statewide office this fall are convoluted.

"There's no candidate who would get up and say he's for public employees having collective bargaining," said Suzanne Kelly, chair of the Virginia Education Association's political action committee. "The public would freak."

For Dalton and Democrat Edward E. Lane, who is running for attorney general, the issue is simple. They are both against collective bargaining in any form.

For the other candidates, the issue is more sensitive, and the tangled skein of their statements at different times, the qualifieres, exceptions and round-about way of not saying anything that might be construed as liberal in a conservative state are confusing.

For example, every candidate says he is opposed to public employees going on strike and would not approve of legislation that gives public employees any bargaining rights unless a provision probihiting strikes is included. However, existing state law prohibits such strikes and says that anyone who strikes will be fired and not rehired for at least a year. Furthermore, no candidate, legislator or public employee representative has suggested this law be repealed.

Historically, Virginia has been a state whose right-to-work law banning compulsory union membership is mentioned almost as often by politicans as motherhood and the flag.

Public employee unions have made little headway in Virginia outside of the Washington suburbs and the highly urban Tidewater area. The Virginia Education Association represents about 46,000 of the state's 54,000 teachers, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has about 2,500 members among blue-collar workers in Northern Virginia and Tidewater. The more than 75,000 state employees are not unionized and are represented only by an association that didn't even ask for a pay increase last year. State employees make an average of $10,800 a year.

Until last January, at least 12 of the most populous jurisdictions in Virginia negotiated contracts with city and county employees, mostly teachers. As the eventual result of a case brought by Gov. Mills E. Godwin against Arlington County, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that local governments do not have the power to bargain with employee representatives and invalidated existing contracts. The court said that localities would be able to bargain with their employees in the future if the state legislative passes enabling legislation.

Such legislation has been introduced several times - even before the Supreme Court decision. Sponsored by two Northern Virginia Democrats, Del. James M. Thomson of Alexandria and Sen. Joseph V. Gartland Jr. of Fairfax, the bill has come to be known as the Thomson bill.

The Thomson bill is the most that labor interests expect to win approval for in the conservative General Assembly. It would enable cities and counties to decide whether to bargain with their employees, although any contract would have to be ratified by a govermental body such as a city council.

The bill also repeats the existing prohibition on strikes and the penalty for striking. It is strictly for localities and would not affect state employees.

Dalton is opposed to the Thomson bill and says he would veto it if the General Assembly approved it.

Dalton says that he would place an annual cost of living pay increase for state employees into the state's biennial budget. "This would be a top priority item in constructing the budget," he said. "If you don't do that the employees are worse off at the end of the year than they were at the begining of the year with inflation such as it is."

Dalton's opponent. Henry E. Howell, has wide labor support. But at times this fall he has declined to say whether or not he would sign the Thomson bill. However, last week he told a meeting of school administrators and school board members in Reston that he would sign the legislation, if it is approved by the legislature.

Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Charles S. (Chuck) Robb has not taken a position on the Thomson bill. He endorses a "communications systems" that has the essential features of the bill. Nonetheless, he refuses to say he supports collective bargainning"in the traditional sense" and has even dropped the phrase "meet and confer," another type of bargaining, from his campaign vocabulary.

Robb's opponent. Republican state Sen. A. Joe Canada, told the Virginia Education Association in a questionnaire response that the state Supreme Court decision made the Thomas bill "moot." However, he said he supported "pattern established by Virginia Beach - which was a negotiations procedure produced a contract between the teachers represented by the YEA and the school board that established wages and working conditions. Making it more complicated. Canada says publicly he does not supports collective bargaining for public employees, and in his fund-raising material decries "union bosses" power grabs to unionize our police, firemen and teachers."

Republican attorney general candidate J. Marshall Coleman told the teachers he supports a meet and confer process. I response to a questionnaire from the National Right to Work Committee, an antiunion group, he answered 'yes' to the question "Will you oppose legislation authorizing the forced unionization of public sector employees, including teachers?"

Howell claims that Dalton has created a "phony issue" by avowing his support of the state's rignt-to-work law. Howell has said that he would sign legisaation repealing the law if the General Assembly voted it; Dalton says he would veto it. However, Howell says that since there is not even a remote possibility of the legislature approving such a repeal, and since he does not intend to ask for it, there is no issue in question.

According to satistics complied by AFSCME, 19 states permit collective bargaining for state and local employees, four states permit it for local employees, two states permit limited bargaining for state employees, and three states permit "meet and confer" bargaining for state and local employees.