On this Labor Day weekend, most Kentuckians favor changing laws to allow employees to work without joining unions, according to a new poll that also says they want an increase in the minimum wage.
The poll shows 55 percent of Kentuckians support a so-called "right-to-work" law and 55 percent back raising the minimum wage.
The Bluegrass Poll, sponsored by the Herald-Leader and WKYT-TV in Lexington and The Courier-Journal and WHAS-TV in Louisville, was conducted Aug. 25 to 27 by SurveyUSA with 647 registered voters. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
The right-to-work and minimum wage issues are at play in this year's U.S. Senate and state House races.
Never miss a local story.
In the Senate race, Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell is pushing a national right-to-work law while Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes opposes it. Grimes is backing an increase in the minimum wage, a move McConnell is against.
In the state House races, Republicans are advocating a right-to-work law in their quest to wrest control of the chamber from Democrats for the first time since 1921. House Democratic leaders urged raising the minimum wage this year, but the issue foundered.
Right to work
Twenty-four states have right-to-work laws.
The Bluegrass Poll showed 55 percent of Kentuckians responded favorably when asked if laws should be changed to allow people to work in businesses that have unions without joining the unions or paying union dues.
Twenty-eight percent of respondents said the laws should not be changed, while 17 percent were not sure. The issue was more popular among men than women — 62 percent to 49 percent — and Republicans than Democrats — 66 percent to 43 percent.
Seventy percent who described themselves as conservative favor right-to-work. Forty-one percent of self-described liberals backed it.
Nearly two of every three respondents from Western Kentucky — 65 percent — backed right-to-work, while slightly more than 50 percent signed on to it in the Louisville area, Eastern Kentucky and north-central Kentucky.
Glenda Dryden, a poll respondent who agreed to a follow-up interview with the Herald-Leader, said Kentucky needed a right-to-work law.
"Unions were good things when workers were treated terribly, like having to work 15-hour days, but unions now, from what I read, are about raising a lot of money," said Dryden, a clerk in the Madison County sheriff's office. "People should be able to work without having to join unions."
But Fred Zegelien, a Clark County actor, said all workers in a company with a union should pay dues.
"If you are going to receive the benefits from a union, you should pay the dues," he said.
Kentucky House Labor and Industry Committee chairman Rick Nelson, D-Middlesboro, said organized labor needed to do a better job in educating the public about what unions accomplish for workers.
"If the public really understood that, there wouldn't be a majority for right to work," said Nelson, who grew up in a union family.
State Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Erlanger who is vice chairman of the House labor committee, said a right-to-work law in Kentucky would increase business.
"And I think it's un-American to require someone to pay union dues to keep their jobs," he said.
Fifty-five percent of Kentuckians think the federal government should raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, while 37 percent want to leave it alone. Eight percent were not sure.
Support for raising the minimum wage has dipped slightly since February, when a Bluegrass Poll showed 61 percent favored raising the minimum wage and 32 percent opposed it.
The issue appears to be especially popular among young people and blacks. Sixty-five percent of respondents ages 18 to 34 say the minimum should be higher, and 75 percent of blacks embrace it.
Seventy-one percent of Democrats back it, while only 35 percent of Republicans favor it. Fifty-six percent of independents said the minimum should be higher.
Slightly more women than men — 57 percent to 53 percent — endorse it, and 52 percent of Kentuckians with four-year college educations like the wage hike.
Support for raising the minimum wage decreased as income increased.
Sixty-five percent of respondents making less than $40,000 a year support a higher minimum wage, while only 41 percent making more than $80,000 a year favor it.
The increase garnered most support in Eastern Kentucky, where 62 percent back it. That dropped to 51 percent in Western Kentucky and the Louisville area.
Jane Eberwein, a retired businesswoman and teacher in Lexington, said the minimum wage should be increased.
"There are so many low-income people who can't get their head above water. I don't think it would be catastrophic to businesses to raise the minimum wage," she said. "It's been done before in the past and didn't kill business."
But Andrew Kletpe, a college student from Edgewood, said there should not even be a minimum wage.
"The only thing it does is increase rampant inflation," he said.
Nelson, the House Labor chairman, said he thought the poll would show more Kentuckians backing a higher minimum wage.
"We're a poor state," he said.
But his colleague, Koenig, said many people realized that raising the minimum wage would be"a terrible policy."
"Most of these jobs are for high school and college-age people," he said. "If anyone with a high school degree and willing to work can't find a job, send them to my district in Northern Kentucky, and they can find a job paying more than minimum wage."