We've seen companies do a lot lately to get out of paying their workers a decent wage, but invoking a Constitutional Amendment originally designed to protect the oppressed is an impressive new low.
Last year, Seattle, Washington passed a law that will ultimately raise the minimum wage to $15 (after phasing it in over three years, a relevant detail to this case), because Seattle is great. Of all the legislated minimum wage increases passed in the last few years (and there have been a lot of them), Seattle's will assure that the city ultimately has the highest minimum wage in the United States. Not content to sit and wait until the city surely collapses into the post-Apocalyptic hellscape Republicans predict every time anyone mentions maybe paying people a living wage for their labor, McDonald's has decided to do something about it: sue the city by trying to say the 14th Amendment means Seattle is discriminating against them — specifically, against their franchisees.
Even if you don't know what it says off the top of your head, you're familiar with the 14th Amendment. Ever heard the words "Equal Protection Clause?" Yeah, that's this one. The 14th Amendment is essentially the follow-up to the 13th Amendment (better known as "the one that says you can't own people — no, Mississippi, it doesn't matter how badly you want to"): at its core, it states that all US citizens are supposed to be treated equally under the law (although clearly, we see how well that has worked out).
McDonald's argument here is multi-faceted. It first argues that because the ordinance affects large businesses more quickly than small businesses (which have a longer fully phasing-in period of the minimum wage that doesn't conclude until 2021), it "disfavors 'large' employers...over 'small' employers," which has a veneer of reasonableness. It then, however, careens completely off the rails:
Plaintiffs bring this challenge because the Ordinance unfairly and irrationally discriminates against interstate commerce generally, and small businesses that operate under the franchise business model specifically. The Ordinance treats a small, independently owned and operated franchisee as a "large" employer—no matter how few workers the small franchisee actually employs in Seattle—if the franchisees in the relevant national franchise network collectively employ more than 500 workers.
McDonald's is issuing this suit with the help of the hilariously-named International Franchise Association, an organization whose singular reason for existing is to fuck over franchisees on behalf of their parent company. It's also an indirect attempt to potentially invalidate the National Labor Relations Board's 2014 ruling that franchises are considered "joint employers" with their parent companies and thus fall under the umbrella of the company, because if an established legal opinion states that franchisees must be considered smaller employers, that becomes a relevant precedent in any case challenging franchisees' status as joint employers.
Using the 14th Amendment to try to protect corporations at the expense of actual human beings is also a surprisingly common tactic. Via Ron Fein at the Huffington Post:
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."
Companies using a Constitutional Amendment originally intended to provide equal protection under the law for the oppressed and perverting it into something that suits their own ends? I'm shocked!
It's not difficult to spot the irony in McDonald's is trying to use a Constitutional Amendment originally designed to protect people of color to keep from having to pay its employees (many of whom are people of color) more than what amounts to modern-day slave wages. The terrifying thing is that it might actually work — if the current mockery we call a Supreme Court has proven anything, it's that it values the rights of conglomerations far more than it does those of actual American citizens. This argument might not have flown in 1938, but that's because there was no established legal precedent for corporate personhood. Citizens United v. Everyone With the Barest Semblance of Human Decency changed that. So as horrible as our current climate of corporate privilege and excess is, it could soon theoretically become far worse.
But hey, winter seems to finally be ending, so...there's that, at least? Huzzah.
Image via 1000 Words/Shutterstock.