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Growing Apart

A Political History of American Inequality

Colin Gordon, Author

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New Deal Minimum Wage Cases

The New Deal minimum wage cases echoed the larger legal pattern of the New Deal, in which early initiatives were struck down (drawing on older precedents), and then the Court switched its tune after 1936--dramatically expanding federal responsibilities.

Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo (1936) concerned Joseph Tipaldo, the manager of a Brooklyn laundry.  Tipaldo was paying nine employees at his laundry $10 a week.  When New York State's new minimum wage law pushed this to $14.88, Tipaldo forced his workers to kick back the difference. He was jailed on forgery and conspiracy charges, and his lawyers sought a ruling that the law was unconstitutional.  The State court agreed, and the Supreme Court affirmed 5-4, arguing that "the decision in Adkins v. Children's Hospital, supra, and the reasoning upon which it rests, clearly show that the State is without power by any form of legislation to prohibit, change, or nullify contracts between employers and adult women workers as to the amount of wages to be paid."

West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish  (1937) concerned Elsie Parrish, a chambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel in Wenatchee, Washington.  Charging that the hotel had paid her less than the State's minimum wage, Parrish, sued for $216.19 in back wages.  In a turnaround, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the state law, arguing that "the exploitation of a class of workers who are in an unequal position with respect to bargaining power, and are thus relatively defenceless against the denial of a living wage, is not only detrimental to their health and wellbeing, but casts a direct burden for their support upon the community. What these workers lose in wages, the taxpayers are called upon to pay. The bare cost of living must be met."
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