(Recasts with proponents declaring victory)
By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Wash. Nov 5 (Reuters) - A ballot initiative to enact a $15 hourly minimum wage for many workers in a working-class Seattle suburb that houses the region's main international airport was leading on Tuesday, with proponents declaring victory in their fight for a livable wage.
The measure would mandate that some 6,300 workers at Sea-Tac International Airport and nearby hotels, car rental agencies and parking lots receive a minimum hourly wage of $15, a rate more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
After a hard-fought battle in the city of SeaTac that highlighted a broader debate over income inequality in America, the measure was leading on Tuesday evening by 54 percent to 46 percent with 3,283 votes counted in the mail-in ballot.
But initiative opponents said it was too early to concede defeat in a city with 12,000 registered voters, with more results expected to trickle in over the next few days.
Washington state already has a higher minimum wage than any other U.S. state, at $9.19 an hour, and the SeaTac wage would be among the nation's highest, just below a $15.38 rate mandated for city workers and contractors in Sonoma, California.
But the measure would apply only to workers in the travel and hospitality industries - from parking lot attendants to hotel maids and airport vendors - and would exempt small firms, airlines and unionized work forces.
The wage campaign, funded by labor and community groups, comes during a push for more livable wages for lower-skilled workers that extends far beyond SeaTac, an ethnic hodgepodge of roughly 28,000 people that was incorporated in 1990.
Backers of the wage ordinance see it as an opportunity to help local workers while encouraging other communities - particularly cities with progressive tendencies and smaller voting pools - to take similar action.
"This win in SeaTac gives hope to thousands of people working for record-profit making corporations at the airport," Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for the Yes For SeaTac campaign, said in a statement. "Voters in other cities may be soon demanding new approaches like this one to create good jobs that rebuild the economy from the middle out."
Opponents complain that the measure would slow the region's economy, and could put the jobs of less skilled workers at risk as the higher wage attracts better qualified applicants. They said they were still hopeful that ballots counted in coming days might swing the contest in their favor.
"We believe that voters got the message that it's going to be very costly for the city and fundamentally unfair to younger people and people starting out in the labor force," said Don Stark, a spokesman for Common Sense SeaTac, the business-backed campaign opposing the measure. "We hope that more of those votes show up in the next couple days."
Opponents have said that fewer than 20 percent of the workers covered under the initiative live in SeaTac, leaving city government to police a set of rules that mostly benefit non residents.
While organized labor hopes SeaTac will act as a catalyst for similar efforts elsewhere, the initiative is not without precedent. Since 1994, when Baltimore instituted the country's first so-called living wage ordinance, more than 120 local governments have followed suit, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Four major California airports operate under ordinances similar to the SeaTac measure, including one guaranteeing workers at San Jose airport $13.82 an hour plus health insurance, and another mandating that Los Angeles airport workers earn $10.91 per hour plus health insurance benefits. (Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Elizabeth Piper)