One of the cruel ironies of the minimum wage battle is that some of the people most responsible for winning a $15 minimum wage aren’t benefiting from the victory. It is fair to argue that without the SeaTac $15 minimum wage initiative helping to define the terms of the debate, Kshama Sawant might never have won her $15-fueled run for Seattle city council. And had not both the SeaTac initiative and Sawant won in November, the mayor and the council would not have felt nearly as much pressure to pass a $15 ordinance so quickly, if at all.
Yet thanks to a post-election ruling from a King County Superior Court judge, thousands of Sea-Tac Airport workers have not been delivered the wages and workplace protections the initiative promised.
Plaintiffs argued, and the judge agreed, that RCW 14.08.330 grants the port “exclusive jurisdiction” over airport operations. And the plain language of that statute certainly appears to support that interpretation. But an amicus brief (pdf) filed by Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson says not so fast.
Ferguson argues that the apparently plain language of RCW 14.08.330 must be interpreted in conjunction with conflicting statutes, specifically RCW 49.46.120, which allows local minimum wage laws that are more favorable to workers to supersede state and federal minimum wage laws. Ferguson’s argument is a clever one. Yes, RCW 14.08.330 grants the port “exclusive jurisdiction,” but only “subject to federal and state laws, rules, and regulations.” RCW 49.46.120 is a state law, and one that grants minimum wage jurisdiction to local governments. Connect the dots, reasons Ferguson, and RCW 14.08.330 grants minimum wage jurisdiction to the City of SeaTac via RCW 49.46.120.
Ferguson argues that since the statutes conflict, “the Court has to look to the legislative intent in passing RCW 14.08.330 to discern the precise scope of the Port’s ‘exclusive jurisdiction:'”
Here, this Court has already explained the Legislature’s intent in enacting RCW 14.08.330. Shortly after the law passed, this Court held: “The effect of this section, when read in the light of the entire Revised Airports Act, is merely to preclude [other local governments] from interfering with respect to the operation of the Seattle-Tacoma airport.” King Cnty. v. Port of Seattle, 37 Wn.2d 338, 348, 223 P.2d 834 4 (1950).
Under Ferguson’s reading, unless SeaTac’s minimum wage ordinance interferes with the operation of the airport, it is permissible. Which brings us to Ferguson’s second—and I think more persuasive—argument: that without jurisdiction there can be no “exclusive” jurisdiction.
For years, port commissioners had insisted that they had no legal authority to set a minimum wage at the airport, so sorry, there was nothing they could do about the horrendous wages and job conditions of airport workers. It was only after the SeaTac initiative passed that the port reversed itself, not only arguing that it, not the City of SeaTac, had jurisdiction over minimum wages at the airport, but joining Alaska Airlines and the other plaintiffs in arguing that such jurisdiction needn’t be considered at all.
The judge agreed, ruling that RCW 14.08.330 gave the port exclusive jurisdiction while leaving unsettled whether the port had the legal authority to set a minimum wage.
Citing both prior case law and, well, logic, Ferguson calls bullshit on that:
If the Port has no jurisdiction over such wages, it cannot as a matter of logic have exclusive jurisdiction over them. And as a matter of legislative intent, if the Legislature gave the Port no authority over this topic, it is hard to imagine that the Legislature intended to oust the authority of other local governments recognized in RCW 49.46.120.
[…] In interpreting the Port’s powers, it is important to remember that: “The Port, as a municipal corporation, is limited in its powers to those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the powers expressly granted, and also those essential to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation. If there is a doubt as to whether the power is granted, it must be denied.” Port of Seattle v. Washington Utils. & Transp. Comm’n 92 Wn.2d 789, 597 P.2d 383 (1979).
In essence, Ferguson argues that for the court to rule the port has “exclusive” jurisdiction over setting a minimum wage at the airport, the court must first rule that the port has any jurisdiction over setting a minimum wage at all. And nothing in state statute explicitly grants the port such power. Therefore, says Ferguson, the limited scope of the port’s “exclusive jurisdiction” leaves jurisdiction over the minimum wage in the hands of the City of SeaTac.
Of course, I’ve only summarized the major points of Ferguson’s 17-page brief. There’s a lot more to it. So read it for yourself.
As for the plaintiffs, their reply (pdf) is perhaps telling:
Neither of the arguments made by the Attorney General was raised by any party to this appeal. This Court does not consider arguments that are raised only by amici curiae.
The plaintiffs go on to insist that the two statutes should not be read together, and that the scope of the port’s employment regulation authority is not at issue in the appeal. It is largely a procedural defense against some very compelling arguments.
So, how will the court rule? Initiative sponsors seem pretty confident that they will prevail on appeal. Put a gun to my head and I’d have to agree. But this isn’t a slam dunk case.
Oral arguments will be held before the court on June 26, with a decision expected later this year.