IT IS impossible to support a strike by public employees when they walk off their jobs without regard for public safety. In Prince George's County, jail guards left their posts early Wednesday morning, prompting prisoners to riot. But the behavior of Prince George's County Executive Lawrence Hogan has been indefensible throughout his fight with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in 18 long months of negotiations on their new contract. Although there has been agreement between Mr. Hogan's own negotiators and the union on nearly all economic issues, he has refused to sign the contract. He is posturing as the unrelenting adversary of the public employee and the fearless friend of the taxpayer -- and he is carrying the pose too far.

In February, Mr. Hogan's labor negotiators agreed to the terms of a new union contract widely thought to be favorable to the county. Then, suddenly, Mr. Hogan said he would not sign it. He disavowed his own labor negotiators, citing three small problems in the contract as his reason for not signing it. But the real reason for Mr. Hogan's refusal was that he was angry over county council pressure to agree to a contract and the intimidation that the union used the council to get the best of him. In July, a county judge upheld a hearing examiner's finding that Mr. Hogan had; in fact, vetoed the contract because of political considerations and thus resorted to unfair labor practices.

There is no question that county employees, particularly those with public safety duties, should not strike. But their union's frustration with Mr. Hogan is so high that it may have been inevitable that a strike would be used against him. Throughout the negotiations, for instance, members of the AFSCME, among the lowest-paid of county employees, have not even received the cost-of-living increases granted other county workers. Now that the strike has publicly demonstrated some of that frustration, the union can gain public support by urging jail guards, at least, if not all union members, to return to work. The union must make it clear that it is not the problem; the problem is Mr. Hogan.