It’s Elsie again. Elsie Parrish, spunky chambermaid at Wenatchee’s Cascadian Hotel, in 1935 took her demands for a minimum wage to the United States Supreme Court and won. She still walks the halls.
Her case overturned the long-held view that government had no business interfering in the mutual agreement between employer and employee. The Constitution guaranteed “liberty of contract,” so the thinking went, and thus government could not tell an employer how much to pay an employee. Elsie Parrish blew that away. Washington’s fledgling law governing wages for women would stand, the Supreme Court ruled, and Elsie got $216 from West Coast Hotel Co., owner of her workplace on North Wenatchee Avenue.
Government has been stepping into the relationship between worker and boss ever since. If a potential employee, possessor of liberty and free will, agrees to supply labor for the price offered, that is not good enough. So we have a minimum wage, mandated benefits, insurance and various accouterments government demands be inserted into what once was considered a private contract.
The economic wisdom of a minimum wage long has been debated, but for the most part it can be accepted as a price of the modern age, where it is in society’s best interest to set a uniform bottom to the pay scale.
Parrish was modest. We now have Parrish in extremis. Governments no longer accept the confining concept of uniformity. They don’t consider minimal interference in the employer-employee contract a virtue. They feel justified in telling individual employers what wage they must pay as a condition of doing business in their jurisdiction. They impose standards on some employers, and not others, often based on political expediency. The minimum wage is minimum no more.
The city of SeaTac is an example. There, a labor-backed group has placed an initiative on the city’s November ballot to raise the minimum wage at airport-related businesses to $15 per hour. The measure affects mainly the captive audience of airport vendors and services, which cannot pick up and leave. Nevertheless, setting the lowest airport pay at more than $30,000 a year for a full-time worker, 63 percent above the state’s already highest-in-the-nation minimum wage, is bound to have screwy consequences in the form of lost jobs and disappearing businesses.
The SeaTac disposal of bargaining in favor of fiat is not nearly so blatantly political as the situation north in Seattle, where mayor and candidate Mike McGinn has recommended a proposed West Seattle development be squashed because its anchor tenant, Whole Foods, does not pay its employees enough for his taste. Perhaps not coincidentally, McGinn was soon thereafter endorsed by the union representing workers at Whole Foods’ competitors. McGinn is either making an effort to protect his union benefactors, or passing social judgment on the wage policy of an individual business far beyond what state and federal law requires, dubious interference, regardless.
To the east, the City Council of Washington, D.C., has taken a not dissimilar course with the Large Retailer Accountability Act, setting the minimum wage for large employers at $12.50 per hour, carefully written to exempt all but Walmart. Unionized competitors, even the city itself, won’t have to meet that standard. Walmart, which got the message and took offense, announced that three planned stores will not be, and three others may be dropped. The City Council seeks justice by not troubling the unemployed with the prospect of a job.
Good laws affect all equally. That’s all Elsie Parrish wanted. To force drastic pay raises without regard to economic consequences, to selectively apply wage laws to exclude, or as leverage to punish the enemies of your political friends, that’s not what this was supposed to be, even if it doesn’t violate the Constitution.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.