A majority of Kentucky voters want the federal government to raise the minimum wage, but say workers should be allowed to hold jobs at unionized businesses without joining the union or paying its dues.
The latest Bluegrass Poll gauged the opinions of 647 registered voters ahead of the Labor Day weekend.
On the question of pay, it found that 55 percent of those surveyed favor proposals for the federal government to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. Thirty-seven percent oppose the change, while 8 percent are not sure."Even if they increase it, you can't live on it," said Lydia Bond, one respondent who supported a higher wage.
Bond, 75, of Louisville, said she has worked various jobs in retail throughout her life and never earned more than $9 an hour. At that rate, it was difficult just to afford the professional attire needed to go to work, she said.
"We are a two-class society now," argued Bond. "As the old, old saying goes, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer."
But Windle Shelton, 81, of Louisville, cited concern that raising the wage could have unintended consequences in the economy, including the loss of entry-level jobs.
"I really don't believe the government has any business telling people how to run their business and what to pay," he said. "I think if you let the market work, the market will work."
The minimum wage has remained a prominent issue in this year's U.S. Senate race, but also has driven debate in the Kentucky General Assembly.
A recent analysis by the Legislative Research Commission, the General Assembly's research arm, concluded that around 391,000 workers in Kentucky earn less than $10.10 per hour.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has argued that increasing the wage would destroy jobs as the country is recovering from the 2008 recession, but his campaign did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
Charly Norton, a spokeswoman for Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, charged that McConnell is siding with billionaires over Kentuckians.
"Mitch McConnell has voted against raising Kentuckians' wages 17 times, all the while voting to give himself a pay raise," Norton said in a statement.
Similar state legislation - sponsored by House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg - to gradually raise Kentucky's wage floor cleared the Democratic-controlled House but stalled in the GOP-led Senate earlier this year.
Stumbo says he will sponsor the legislation again in 2015.
According to the poll, voters age 18 to 34 back the increase more than any other age group - 65 percent to 31 percent. And support for raising the wage is high among African-Americans with 75 percent favoring it, compared to 54 percent of whites.
Income also plays a factor, with 65 percent of those making less than $40,000 a year supporting a higher wage. But of those earning more than $80,000 a year, 51 percent oppose the change.
The poll also showed that Republicans are against raising the wage, 55 percent to 35 percent. Democrats support it 71 percent to 22 percent, while independents also favor the higher wage, 56 percent to 39 percent.
"The minimum wage is one of the most important tools that we need to update to ensure that people who are working every day can make enough to provide for their family's basic needs," said Jason Bailey, director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, a progressive think tank.
Bailey said the minimum wage has failed to keep pace with inflation and that one in four Kentucky workers would benefit from the proposed increase. He added that the "overwhelming consensus" in economic research is that raising the rate will have little to no effect on jobs.
SurveyUSA conducted the poll for The Courier-Journal, WHAS-TV, the Lexington Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV between Aug. 25 and 27. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Right to work legislation
The poll also found voters would support - 55 percent to 28 percent - changes in law that let people work in unionized businesses without joining the union or paying dues. Seventeen percent said they were not sure.
Among Republicans, 66 percent favored the change, along with 64 percent of independents. But only 43 percent of Democrats agreed.
Men favored a change in law 62 percent to 27 percent, but women were divided 49 percent in support and 29 percent opposed. And people between the ages of 35 and 49 showed the strongest support among other age groups, with 60 percent favoring.
Alan Wilson, a 21-year-old electrician in Lexington, said he's worked with union trades on job sites and has found union workers are not as motivated as others.
Wilson said he would like to see the law changed because "there are certain companies that I wouldn't mind working for, but they are unionized."
Still, James Bowling, 42, of Ferguson, and a self-employed installer of security systems, said it's unfair for employees in a unionized company to get the benefits of a union without participating.
"I've been in a union before and I wouldn't want to pay my dues and have someone else profit from everything that I've done," he said.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, sponsored "right-to-work" legislation this year, but the measure died in committee. He said Friday that he plans to file the bill again next year and that it has a good chance of clearing the House if Republicans win control in November.
Hoover said in a statement that "House Democrats have been satisfied with the status quo" while surrounding states with right-to-work laws have "experienced tremendous job growth."
Stumbo said that while the legislation sounds good, people oppose it once they understand how it works. He called it "right to work for nothing."