Corporations Continue to Claim Constitutional Rights in Seattle Living Wage Case

This Tuesday, lawyers argued before a federal appeals court panel in Seattle, to contend whether the city’s new minimum wage violates the equal protection rights of franchised business corporations. Free Speech For People filed an amicus brief in support of the city, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause protects people, not corporations, and in particular that living wages were a central concern of the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters. Our local counsel in Seattle, Harry Williams, attended the oral argument and submits this report.

Corporate America continued its legal battle against fair, living wages in Seattle on Tuesday. Having lost in the trial court, on Tuesday in Seattle, the International Franchise Association asked the federal court of appeals to overturn Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law.

One of the arguments put forward by McDonald’s and its allies was that the law violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which amended the Constitution after the Civil War and sought to make sure that former slaves received equal protection under the laws of the states.

Free Speech For People, Demos, Courage Campaign, and the Equal Justice Society submitted an amicus brief before Tuesday’s oral argument showing that part of the motivation for the Fourteenth Amendment was to force employers to pay former slaves “ fair, living wages.” Soon after the war ended, it became clear that without a way to earn enough to live on, slaves’ new freedom would mean little. The Equal Protection Clause was part of the effort — never sufficient — to provide former slaves decent economic opportunities.

McDonald’s chose not to fight that issue at the oral argument. The issue before the court, while important, is really narrow and temporary: the law forces outlets of big corporations like McDonald’s to pay $15 earlier than unaffiliated small businesses. In a few years, all businesses must pay $15 an hour, so this fight is about a short transition period.

Seattle’s City Council, backed up by economic experts, determined that franchisees have additional resources that allow them to pay a higher wage earlier. The ads you see everywhere for chain restaurants, the buying power of a large corporation, and other advantages allow franchisees to ramp up to $15 earlier.

McDonald’s argued that rather than help workers by making those who can pay more and do it faster do just that, what Seattle really wanted to do was harm out-of-state corporations. Never mind that that McDonald’s main evidence of this intent were some emails by a private citizen, an early investor in Amazon who later sold a company to Microsoft for $6.4 billion. Apparently, a billionaire’s emails to City Council members about his dislike of fast food chains are evidence of an unconstitutional law.

McDonald’s argues that its franchisees cannot afford to pay higher minimum wage, and in doing so denies that there are really any significant benefits of being a McDonald’s franchise. I doubt very much that McDonald’s is so modest in touting the benefits of affiliation in the packet they send to potential investors in franchises.

Expect whatever decision the court of appeals makes to end up before the Supreme Court.

 

 

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