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Tough Sell for Minimum Wage

Labor: Proposals to raise the rate failed in several states, which could curtail further efforts.


Raising the minimum wage, widely considered an issue with broad public appeal, has turned out to be a tougher-than-expected sell to voters across the country.

That realization, political observers say, could chill some of the campaigns emerging from coast to coast to boost the wages of the working poor.

Unions and their allies scored their biggest minimum wage victory in Tuesday's voting in California, where Proposition 210 captured nearly 62% of the vote.

The measure will boost California workers' minimum wages in two steps to $5.75 by March 1998, up from the current $4.75-an-hour federal standard. A minimum wage increase also passed in Oregon.

But propositions calling for increases in Missouri, Montana and the city of Denver--where early polls showed wide support for raising the minimum--all went down to defeat. In those areas, business groups successfully argued that minimum wage increases would eliminate jobs and thus hurt the workers that the raises are supported to help.

Christine L. Owens, executive director of Worker Options Resource Center, an advocacy group for low-wage workers that supported the initiatives, said, "We did win two of them, and we haven't had minimum wage campaigns before, so it was a good precedent."

But, she acknowledged, given the cost and difficulties of mounting such proposition campaigns, there may be fewer efforts in the future.

Tuesday's losses for organized labor may prompt the unions providing most of the financing for such campaigns to back away from future efforts, said W.W. "Biff" Naylor, chairman of the National Restaurant Assn., the main opponent of the minimum wage measures.

"If I were a union member, I'd say why not spend that money on my behalf and get me a better contract," instead of financing minimum wage campaigns, Naylor said.

"My guess is they'll try a couple more, and they won't succeed any better than they did" on Tuesday, he added.

The mixed results in the minimum wage campaigns partly stemmed from differences in the propositions themselves, along with varying political circumstances.

In California, the coalition of organized labor and religious and community groups behind Proposition 210 raised nearly $2 in contributions for every $1 collected by the business groups that opposed the measure. Big business put its money instead into its successful fight against Proposition 211, which would have expanded investors' rights to file securities fraud lawsuits.

But in Missouri, for instance, business reportedly outspent proponents of that state's minimum wage initiative by an 8-1 margin.

What's more, the California proposition called for the smallest increase of any of the minimum wage measures on the ballot Tuesday. Denver's initiative, by contrast, would have boosted the standard to $7.15 an hour by 1999.

In California, "we picked a number that we thought was fair and winnable," said Steve Nutter, western regional director of one of Proposition 210's main backers, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE.

Nutter said the unions and their allies in the Proposition 210 campaign will meet soon to look into other ways they can help the working poor.

Even in California, Proposition 210 didn't have the allure once envisioned. The proposition, as well as other states' minimum wage measures, were intended partly as a get-out-the-vote device to attract liberal voters. But a Times Poll last month showed that only 1% of the voters surveyed were motivated to vote because of Proposition 210.

Still, Richard Holober, campaign manager for Proposition 210, pointed out that the extra voters brought to the polls by the initiative, however few, may have been the margin of difference that enabled Democrats to retake the California Assembly.

In a growing number of cities across the country, including Los Angeles, similar coalitions of unions and community groups are seeking to establish higher wage floors for employees of firms receiving city business or subsidies.

Although these measures are being brought before local city councils rather than the voters, some observers said that the political mood reflected in Tuesday's votes could slow the spread of those efforts too.

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