Tax money saver or job loser: labor battles ballot Question 2

ORGANIZED labor, long a potent force in Massachusetts government, has a lot at stake in the November election. Regardless of whether Gov. Michael Dukakis, the AFL-CIO's presidential endorsee, and its other friends come through with flying colors, there may be little celebrating within state union ranks.

Overshadowing labor's support of various candidates is its major effort to block voter passage of a measure that could weaken the wage structure within some unions. At issue is the fate of Question 2, an initiative petition that seeks repeal of a statute that requires pay scales on state, county, and municipal construction sites to be at the same level of those under union contracts on private projects.

Those in favor of the initiative include the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the High-Tech Council, the Massachusetts Taxpayers' Federation, and Citizens for Limited Taxation. They say the 74-year-old statute tends to inflate public construction costs. A ``yes'' vote, they hold, would save a lot of tax dollars, or at least stretch them to accomplish more.

The Fair Wage Committee, as the repeal coalition calls itself, collected some 90,000 voter signatures on petitions circulated last fall. State lawmakers, however, wanted no part of it and on May 3, without a whisper of debate, the House rejected it 123 to 24. Repeal proponents then collected another 21,000-plus signatures, much more than double what was required, to put the issue on the ballot.

Opposition forces, led by the Greater Boston Building Trades Council - with the solid support of the Massachusetts State Labor Council, AFL-CIO - having failed to shoot down the proposal by court challenge, are readying a counteroffensive. It could be the biggest such media blitz since 1948 when organized labor throughout the state united to persuade the state's electorate to turn down three ballot proposals that would have made it harder for unions to organize workers and hold on to them.

Foes of the current proposal warn that its approval might lead to lower wages in the construction industry and fewer jobs for union workers. Instead of lower taxes, repeal of the prevailing wage regulations might simply let elected officials spend more on pet programs, they suggest.

A major concern to unions is that those bidding for public construction contracts would not only hire nonunion workers but also those from out of state, at wages lower than that paid for workers with similar skills covered by union contracts in the private sector.

It might be noted that two of the groups behind the initiative - the High-Tech Council and Citizens for Limited Taxation - were the prime movers in the 1980 push for local property-tax relief through Proposition 2.

Then, as in this initiative, the appeal to voters is the potential for controlling government spending. Backers of the proposal suggest a projected savings of $200 million a year to cities and towns. There is no guarantee, however, that much of this would remain in taxpayers' wallets, although that is the intent of the proposal.

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