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CPD In the News

| Raising the Bar for Workers and Families
Published By:Forbes

In The Battle To Raise Minimum Wages, Businesses Opposed Are Outgunned

This is the third post in a series about ballot measures to raise the minimum wage in Colorado and three other states. The first post introduced a restaurateur in Denver who supports the increase and the national organization that persuaded him to go public with that support, is here. The second looked at how the provision could widen inequality among servers and kitchen workers.

There are 32 mostly state and local business associations that have signed on to Keep Colorado Working, the coalition formed to fight Amendment 70, which would raise the state’s minimum wage through a constitutional amendment. Only one of them, however, has actually contributed money to fight the ballot measure: The Colorado Restaurant Association and its political action committee have spent $359,000, which makes it the single largest Colorado contributor to campaign, which has raised $1.7 million to date.

Indeed, while dozens of local food services businesses have chipped at least $105,000 to the effort, which has raised $1.7 million to date, more than $1 million has come into the coalition’s coffers from out of state, including $850,000 from a shadowy business group called the Workforce Fairness Institute. Other large national contributors include Darden, the Olive Garden’s parent corporation, and the National Restaurant Association.

But all this is far less than the $2 to $3 million that opponents had anticipated spending to try and defeat the amendment. And it is dwarfed by the $5.2 million that advocates for the vote, working under the name Colorado Families for a Fair Minimum Wage, have raised. Most of their money has come from national unions and union-backed organizations like The Fairness Project and progressive philanthropies like the Center for Popular Democracy and the Civic Participation Action Fund.

In a campaign awash with money, the efforts of Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, which has been organizing Colorado businesses to support the amendment, are fairly modest. Business for a Fair Minimum Wage founder and C.E.O. Holly Sklar won’t say how much her group is spending in Colorado, but the effort is being funded by Dr. Bronner’s, the organic soap-maker with a long history of activism. (She declines to further identify its funders, except to say that they comprise businesses and foundations.) Dr. Bronner’s has made raising the minimum wage a top company priority, even relabeling some of its soap bottles with “Fair Pay Today!” “People should be able to make ends meet on the wages they get,” says David Bronner, C.E.O. of his family’s company, which is registered as a benefit corporation. “They should not have to rely on inefficient government programs like food stamps and housing assistance. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize companies using the welfare system to keep wages low.”

Bronner says his company has given about $75,000 to Business for a Fair Minimum Wage. “We really like what they’re doing,” he says. “I think it’s really important that policy makers hear from business owners, that business owners too see value in raising the minimum wage, and it isn’t just about labor groups and worker rights.”

Outside of Colorado, business groups have mounted little more than token opposition. In each of Arizona, Maine, and Washington, where advocates have raised over $1 million to promote their respective ballot measures, opponents have raised $100,000 or less, according to state campaign finance records. The Arizona Restaurant Association sued to try and prevent the minimum wage from making the November ballot, but hasn’t spent any money combating it since then. (The group’s president and C.E.O., Steve Chucri, didn’t respond to requests for comment.) The state chamber of commerce has agreed to kick in $20,000.

In Maine, the state restaurant association has spent nearly $78,000 to fight the ballot amendment through its political action committee, but apart from small contributions from Darden ($7,500) and the National Restaurant Association ($2,500), the opposition has recorded no contributions from out of state.

It’s not clear — even to some of the principals — why Colorado became the battlefield of choice in the fight over minimum wage at the expense of media outlets in Arizona, Maine, and Washington. “Why they’re not putting money to fight it here is a mystery to me,” says Maine Restaurant Association president and C.E.O. Steve Hewins of the national organizations, though he allows that “Maine to a degree is off a lot of radar screens.”

The National Restaurant Association declined to respond directly to Hewins’s charge of neglect. But in an emailed statement, the organization’s spokesman, Steve Danon, wrote, “While we work in partnership, our state restaurant associations take the lead on these issues, as they know what works best for restaurateurs in their state. We’ve been vocal on opposing drastic increases to the minimum wage overall.” The Workforce Fairness Institute and Darden didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But Tyler Sandberg, who is managing the Keep Colorado Working campaign, suggests that perhaps national groups are drawn to the Colorado initiative because, as a constitutional amendment, it “is the worst-written of all of them.” But he also says he’s made a point of soliciting those contributions. “When we saw all the national money coming in on the other side, we realized we would have to fight fire with fire and seek national contributions as well.”

Sklar says her pro-wage-hike business group is focusing on Colorado because the Arizona and Washington measures also include paid sick leave, which is beyond her group’s scope, and in Maine a local small-business coalition is pressing the case.

In any event, the vast sums spent in Colorado appear to have made little difference. Polls in all four states show the wage increase winning by similar margins, with 55 percent to 60 percent of voters backing it.

By Robb Mandelbaum