Above: Elsie Parrish
On March 29, 1937, the Supreme Court decided the case of West Coast Hotel Company v. Parrish. This 5-4 decision upheld Washington’s minimum wage law for women as constitutional, arguing that it was not a violation of free contract doctrine because the state had an interest in protecting women’s health and ensuring they could support themselves. This case not only helped pave the way for the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established the national minimum wage, it was a critical moment in the shift of the Supreme Court from the Lochner era to one that would uphold New Deal legislation.
Elsie Parrish was a chambermaid at the Cascadian Hotel, which was owned by the West Coast Hotel Company, in Wenatchee, Washington. She was born in 1899 in Kansas, married when she was 15, had six children, and divorced her husband and moved to central Washington in 1930, where she got remarried. She took the job in 1933, making 22 1/2 cents an hour. The state of Washington had passed a minimum wage of $14.50 a week for women workers. The Cascadian did not pay her that minimum wage. When Parrish was fired, she sued for her back wages, up to the minimum wage. The company offered $17, she felt she was owed $216.19. A prominent local attorney took up her case pro bono.
West Coast Hotel Company felt it had the law on its side. While very much under the doctrine of free contract established in Lochner, which stated that workers and employers were both free agents and if a worker agreed to work for a wage a company offered, that worker had made a choice based on said worker’s own free will. This of course was a farce, completely ignoring power relations between workers and employers, the impoverished and the millionaires. It openly tilted power toward employers. For women, there had been some waffling. Muller v. Oregon in 1908 had upheld a state maximum hours for women law based on the special needs of women. It was paternalistic but it also opened the door for greater restrictions on the doctrine of contract. But the 1923 Adkins v. Children’s Hospital decision devastated labor reformers when it threw out the federal minimum wage Congress had implemented for Washington D.C. Would the courts ever allow for laws to allow workers to make a decent wage?
When Parrish took her case to the trial court, it ruled for the hotel, using Adkins as a precedent. But the Washington Supreme Court took the case on a direct appeal and ruled in her favor. West Coast appealed to the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of Parrish. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes took the opportunity to shred the whole idea of free contract doctrine in his opinion:
The principle which must control our decision is not in doubt. The constitutional provision invoked is the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment governing the states, as the due process clause invoked in the Adkins Case governed Congress. In each case the violation alleged by those attacking minimum wage regulation for women is deprivation of freedom of contract. What is this freedom? The Constitution does not speak of freedom of contract. It speaks of liberty and prohibits the deprivation of liberty without due process of law. In prohibiting that deprivation, the Constitution does not recognize an absolute and uncontrollable liberty. Liberty in each of its phases has its history and connotation. But the liberty safeguarded is liberty in a social organization which requires the protection of law against the evils which menace the health, safety, morals, and welfare of the people. Liberty under the Constitution is thus necessarily subject to the restraints of due process, and regulation which is reasonable in relation to its subject and is adopted in the interests of the community is due process.
This essential limitation of liberty in general governs freedom of contract in particular. More than twenty-five years ago we set forth the applicable principle in these words, after referring to the cases where the liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment had been broadly described.
We think that the views thus expressed are sound and that the decision in the Adkins Case was a departure from the true application of the principles governing the regulation by the state of the relation of employer and employed. Those principles have been reenforced by our subsequent decisions.
Hughes was joined by Brandeis, Stone, Cardozo, and Roberts, with Sutherland, Van Devanter, McReynolds, and Butler dissenting. This was notable because it was right after FDR had announced his court-packing plan. Now, the court-packing plan was a total disaster from a political perspective, but it did have the benefit of transforming the Supreme Court. The ancient conservatives on the court began retiring soon after West Coast v. Parrish. Most importantly was Owen Roberts’ switch to begin siding with the liberals on New Deal cases. He has been a reliable, if not fanatical, conservative before this and participated in overturning much New Deal law. No one is quite sure what his mindset was for switching sides, partly because he burned all his papers after he retired in 1945. But his doing so did indeed save this law, and perhaps the Supreme Court’s legitimacy. Hughes always claimed that he and Roberts were overwhelmed by FDR’s blowout 1936 election and realized they had to keep the Court in the mainstream of American opinion.
In the aftermath, Congress moved quickly to pass the Fair Labor Standards Act. There had already been a lot of agitation from powerful politicians for a comprehensive labor bill, none more so than Hugo Black and his desire to create a 6-hour day. While that radical proposal did not come to pass, with a constitutional justification for a real labor bill now established, Black and his allies, along with the Roosevelt administration, acted fast, before Roosevelt’s political power was too diminished by conservative political forces. In fact, the FLSA was the last major piece of New Deal legislation, and that only loaded with compromises that basically excluded black workers outside of industrial plants from coverage.
West Coast v. Parrish also became a frequently cited decision granting states police power to ensure basic health and safety for the public. No doubt Republicans are chomping at the bit to overturn it.
The aftermath of this case did not change Elsie Parrish’s life, although she did finally received her back pay. She told a local newspaper: “I am so glad, not only for myself, but for all the women of the state who have been working for just whatever they could get.”
This is the 263rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.