Last summer, the City of Seattle passed a law that will raise the city's minimum wage to $15 per hour. But in a bizarre twist, Ronald McDonald and friends are suing the city. On March 10, they'll be in a federal courtroom, complaining that the new minimum wage violates a constitutional provision that was written to protect newly-freed slaves after the Civil War.
Most people can't survive on Washington's current statewide minimum wage of $9.47, let alone the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Even if the sophisticated crew-scheduling software let you work 40 hours a week at $9.47 for every single week of the year, you wouldn't clear $20,000. In the end, 52 percent of fast food workers end up on public assistance. You'll find similar stories for other minimum wage workers, such as hotel maids and nursing home assistants.
That's why the Seattle City Council spent months studying the idea of raising the city's minimum wage. To be sure, some business leaders made economic arguments against raising the minimum wage. Others agreed with workers that a higher minimum wage would actually benefit business overall, or at least were willing to negotiate. The city council heard the arguments on both sides, evaluated their merits, sweated over the details, and ultimately voted to pass a minimum wage ordinance, which the city's mayor then signed into law.
That should be the end of the story. But, as too often happens these days, corporate trial lawyers have brought expensive litigation to try to stop the law from going into effect. The International Franchise Association, with assistance from the National Restaurant Association and other industry trade groups, is claiming that the law is not just bad for their bottom line, but actually violates the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
That amendment was passed in 1866 to ensure equal rights for the freed slaves, and it says that no state may "deny to any person ... the equal protection of the laws." According to the Hamburglar, treating a franchised business differently from a local business violates this Equal Protection Clause.
But what about the equal protection rights of the people who work in these businesses? Our historical research has found that the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment were very interested in employer-employee relations, and in particular, whether workers could earn "fair, living wages." That phrase doesn't come from some union organizer or activist in Seattle: it comes from Senator Jacob Howard, a staunch Republican who was the Fourteenth Amendment's Senate floor manager back in 1866, and whose statements on the concerns motivating the Fourteenth Amendment are a little more important than the legal opinions of Grimace and Captain Crook. And during the Congressional hearings documented in the official report of the committee that proposed the amendment, Senator Howard asked over and over whether employers would pay "fair, living wages." Of course, a living wage wasn't the only concern behind the Fourteenth Amendment. But, unlike protection of the franchised business model, it was definitely part of the overall goals.
Given how important the idea of "fair, living wages" was to the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment, it's shameful for the McNugget Buddies to claim that the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause should protect them, rather than real human workers with families to feed. But it's not surprising. Ever since the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, corporate lawyers have tried to leverage it into a racket to strike down laws like Seattle's. In 1938, a frustrated Supreme Court justice complained that "of the cases in [the] Court in which the Fourteenth Amendment was applied during the first fifty years after its adoption, less than one-half of 1 percent invoked it in protection of the negro race, and more than 50 percent asked that its benefits be extended to corporations." Just this past year, we've seen the Equal Protection Clause invoked on behalf of coal companies and multinational agribusiness conglomerates. And now, the Fry Kids.
Meanwhile, the actual workers who are now slaving away for poverty wages -- the restaurant cooks, hotel maids, janitors, and others -- are suffering. While in days past many of these workers were teenagers looking for extra spending money, today most of them are adults, often with children. And they're all struggling to survive without "fair, living wages."
We need to put a stop to this dangerous constitutional argument. The businesses had their opportunity to make their case to the city, and they lost. They shouldn't be allowed to run to court carrying in the banner of the Fourteenth Amendment. As President Lincoln famously said, government should be "of the people, by the people, [and] for the people." And Mayor McCheese doesn't get a veto.
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