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Work­ers at Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Air­port must be paid a min­i­mum wage of $15/hour in accor­dance with the City of SeaT­ac’s Good Jobs law (Propo­si­tion #1, enact­ed by vot­ers in 2013) the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 5–4 deci­sion authored by Jus­tice Susan Owens, the Court held the air­port is not exempt from the law, even though it is admin­is­tered by the Port of Seattle.

Owens was joined by fel­low asso­ciate Jus­tices Charles John­son, Steven González, Sheryl Gor­don McCloud, and Mary Yu.

Jus­tices Debra Stephens, Bar­bara Mad­sen (the chief jus­tice), Mary Fairhurst, and Char­lie Wig­gins dis­sent­ed in part, with Stephens writ­ing the dis­sent­ing opinion.

The case, No. 89723–9, involves four dif­fer­ent par­ties. The respon­dents and cross-appel­lants are sev­er­al busi­ness­es: Filo Foods LLC, BF Foods, LLC, Alas­ka Air­lines, Inc. and the Wash­ing­ton Restau­rant Asso­ci­a­tion. As Filo Foods is the lead respon­dent, its name appears through­out the text of the Court’s opinion.

Sum­ma­riz­ing the case and the major­i­ty oin­ion, Jus­tice Owens writes, “Filo Foods chal­lenges the valid­i­ty of Propo­si­tion 1 on sev­er­al grounds. First, Filo Foods argues that Propo­si­tion 1 is pro­ce­du­ral­ly invalid in its entire­ty because it vio­lates the sin­gle-sub­ject rule. We hold that Propo­si­tion 1 does not vio­late the sin­gle-sub­ject rule.”

“Sec­ond, Filo Foods con­tends that under state law, Propo­si­tion 1 may not be applied at the Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Airport.”

“We con­clude that Propo­si­tion 1 can be applied at the air­port because there is no indi­ca­tion that it will inter­fere with air­port operations.

“Third, Filo Foods argues that fed­er­al law pre­empts Propo­si­tion 1, in whole or, alter­na­tive­ly, in part. We con­clude fed­er­al law does not pre­empt Propo­si­tion 1 in whole or in part. Final­ly, Filo Foods argues that Propo­si­tion 1 vio­lates the dor­mant com­merce clause; we con­clude that it does not.”

“Thus, we find Propo­si­tion 1 valid in its entirety.”

The Court’s deci­sion — a remark­able dis­missal of all the issues raised by the busi­ness groups opposed to the law — is a sig­nif­i­cant vic­to­ry for Wash­ing­ton State’s labor move­ment and will result in many more work­ers receiv­ing bad­ly need­ed wage increase and addi­tion­al pro­tec­tions while on the job.

Up until now, the SeaT­ac Good Jobs ini­tia­tive has only been enforced in the City of SeaT­ac out­side of the air­port, due to low­er courts hav­ing ruled that the City did not have the author­i­ty to set wages inside the airport.

Now that the Supreme Court has found oth­er­wise, the Good Jobs ini­tia­tive can take full effect and work the way that it was sup­posed to.

Attor­ney Gen­er­al Bob Fer­gu­son released a state­ment prais­ing the rul­ing and not­ing his office’s involve­ment in the case, which reads in part:

In hold­ing that the City’s ordi­nance pro­tects air­port work­ers, the Court relied in part on the AG’s argu­ment about how to inter­pret the state min­i­mum wage law:  “This argu­ment regard­ing the Wash­ing­ton Min­i­mum Wage Act was first advanced by the Wash­ing­ton State Attor­ney Gen­er­al.” (Filo Foods, LLC v. City of SeaT­ac, page 19.)

“I’m pleased the Court adopt­ed my office’s pro­posed approach as a key part of its 5–4 deci­sion,” Fer­gu­son said.

“This impor­tant rul­ing helps pro­tect the rights of work­ers at SeaT­ac Air­port and rec­og­nizes the broad author­i­ty state and local gov­ern­ments have to sup­port their hard-work­ing residents.”

The appeal hinged on what inter­pre­ta­tion of state law gov­ern­ing ports was cor­rect: the City of SeaT­ac’s or the Port of Seat­tle’s. The Court decid­ed that the City’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the law was cor­rect. Jus­tice Owens writes:

The city of SeaT­ac con­tends that the leg­is­la­ture intend­ed to give the Port of Seat­tle juris­dic­tion over only air­port oper­a­tions, where­as the Port of Seat­tle con­tends that the leg­is­la­ture intend­ed to pro­hib­it any city of SeaT­ac law or reg­u­la­tion from apply­ing at the Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. As described below, we reject the Port of Seat­tle’s inter­pre­ta­tion because we find it, among oth­er things, incom­pat­i­ble with a spe­cial pur­pose dis­tric­t’s lim­it­ed powers.

Unlike cities, which are grant­ed “the broad­est pow­ers of local self-gov­ern­ment,” RCW 35A.01.010, a port dis­trict is a spe­cial pur­pose dis­trict, which “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.”

She goes on to note:

The leg­is­la­ture express­ly instruct­ed that the pur­pose of the statu­to­ry scheme is to ensure uni­for­mi­ty in the laws regard­ing aero­nau­tics. RCW 14.08.340. Addi­tion­al­ly, the law detail­ing the spe­cif­ic pow­ers of munic­i­pal­i­ties oper­at­ing air­ports, RCW 14.08.120(1), pro­vides that a munic­i­pal­i­ty may estab­lish a board respon­si­ble for “the con­struc­tion, enlarge­ment, improve­ment, main­te­nance, equip­ment, oper­a­tion, and reg­u­la­tion [of the air­port or oth­er air nav­i­ga­tion facility].”

These aspects of the statu­to­ry scheme lead us to con­clude that the leg­is­la­ture intend­ed to vest author­i­ty for the oper­a­tion of the air­port exclu­sive­ly with the Port of Seat­tle, but not to pro­hib­it a local munic­i­pal­i­ty like the city of SeaT­ac from reg­u­lat­ing for the gen­er­al wel­fare in a man­ner unre­lat­ed to air­port operations.

And con­cludes:

Absent a fac­tu­al show­ing that Propo­si­tion 1 would inter­fere with air­port oper­a­tions, the propo­si­tion does not con­flict with the Port of Seat­tle’s juris­dic­tion or abil­i­ty to oper­ate the Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. There­fore, Propo­si­tion 1 can be valid­ly enforced at the Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Airport.

Four of Owens’ col­leagues took issue with this ratio­nale and signed a dis­sent­ing opin­ion hold­ing that the state’s Revised Air­ports Act does pre­vent the City from being able to enforce the Good Jobs Ini­tia­tive at the air­port. (The dis­sent­ing opin­ion is con­cerned with this issue alone; the jus­tices were all in agree­ment that fed­er­al labor law does not pre­empt the SeaT­ac Good Jobs initiative).

“I dis­agree with the major­i­ty’s con­clu­sion that Propo­si­tion 1 may be applied at the Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Air­port con­sis­tent with the Revised Air­ports Act, RCW 14.08.330,” Jus­tice Debra Stephens writes, begin­ning her dissent.

She goes on to say: “In my view, the major­i­ty’s result offends the statute’s plain lan­guage, which pro­vides that ‘[e]very air­port’ shall be under ‘the exclu­sive juris­dic­tion and con­trol’ of the ‘munic­i­pal­i­ty…  con­trol­ling and oper­at­ing it.’ ”

“Here, it is undis­put­ed that the Port of Seat­tle con­trols and oper­ates the Seat­tle-Taco­ma Inter­na­tion­al Air­port. Its juris­dic­tion is there­fore exclu­sive. Fur­ther, the statute pro­vides ‘[n]o oth­er munic­i­pal­i­ty in which the air­port… is locat­ed shall have any police juris­dic­tion of the [air­port].’ ”

“It is undis­put­ed that the city of SeaT­ac is the munic­i­pal­i­ty in which the air­port is locat­ed. The city of SeaT­ac thus has no police juris­dic­tion at the air­port. A straight­for­ward appli­ca­tion of RCW 14.08.330 should end the matter.”

Stephens goes on to argue:

The major­i­ty’s dis­tinc­tion, between the air­port as a geo­graph­ic area and as a set of func­tion­al activ­i­ties (“air­port oper­a­tions or the sub­ject of aero­nau­tics,” id.), is nowhere to be found in the statute. The sub­ject of the statute is sim­ply “[e]very air­port.” RCW 14.08.330.

The statute does not slice and dice an “air­port” to reveal some sort of “core air­port func­tion” judi­cial test. Instead the statute con­cerns, as its lan­guage says it does, the airport.

The statute’s struc­ture con­firms this. The statute fol­lows a gen­er­al rule/exception struc­ture. Its gen­er­al rule is that the munic­i­pal­i­ty con­trol­ling and oper­at­ing the air­port (the Port of Seat­tle) shall have exclu­sive juris­dic­tion and con­trol over the air­port, and that no oth­er munic­i­pal­i­ty in which the air­port is locat­ed (the city of SeaT­ac) shall have any police juris­dic­tion of the air­port. RCW 14.08.330.

The statute then has one excep­tion to that rule. The excep­tion pro­vides “How­ev­er, … a munic­i­pal­i­ty in which an air­port… is locat­ed may be respon­si­ble for the admin­is­tra­tion and enforce­ment of the uni­form fire code… on that por­tion of any air­port… locat­ed with its juris­dic­tion­al bound­aries,” so long as it does this “by agree­ment with the munic­i­pal­i­ty oper­at­ing and con­trol­ling the air­port,” (the Port of Seat­tle). Id. Thus, a fire code is the sin­gle cir­cum­stance in which the city of SeaT­ac can enforce its laws with­in the airport.

The major­i­ty opin­ion con­tains a response to this argument:

The dis­sent asserts that the pro­vi­sion of RCW 14.08.330 relat­ed to the admin­is­tra­tion and enforce­ment of local fire codes “dis­proves” our inter­pre­ta­tion of the statute. Dis­sent at 6.

It asserts that “[i]f the leg­is­la­ture intend­ed the oper­at­ing munic­i­pal­i­ty’s exclu­sive juris­dic­tion to be over only [air­port oper­a­tions], why would the leg­is­la­ture spec­i­fy an excep­tion from the oper­at­ing munic­i­pal­i­ty’s exclu­sive juris­dic­tion to allow the munic­i­pal­i­ty in which the air­port sits to enforce afire code at the air­port?” Id. at 6–7. The leg­isla­tive his­to­ry of the fire code amend­ment answers the dis­sent’s question.

The house com­mit­tee in sup­port of the bill tes­ti­fied, “Seat­tle has been enforc­ing its uni­form fire code on the por­tion of the King Coun­ty air­port locat­ed with­in its bound­aries, but their attor­ney feels they may not have this author­i­ty… This bill clar­i­fies an ambi­gu­i­ty in cur­rent law.” H.B. REPORT ON H.B. 139, 49th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Wash. 1985).

That lan­guage shows that the leg­is­la­ture added the fire code lan­guage because it rec­og­nized that the statute’s ambigu­ous lan­guage called into ques­tion Seat­tle’s abil­i­ty to enforce the uni­form fire code.

By adding in the lan­guage, it “clarifie[d] an ambi­gu­i­ty.” 5 Id. Rather than dis­prov­ing our inter­pre­ta­tion, the house bill rein­forces our con­clu­sion that the statute’s lan­guage is ambiguous.

The dis­sent­ing jus­tices feel that the Court’s hold­ing in this case sets an unwel­come prece­dent and will result in con­fu­sion going for­ward. They assert:

The leg­is­la­ture did not intend to fos­ter a cot­tage indus­try of lit­i­ga­tion over air­port oper­a­tions, where the courts arrive at case-by-case con­clu­so­ry deter­mi­na­tions under an impre­cise test. It chose to draw a clear line. It enact­ed a statute that gives exclu­sive juris­dic­tion and con­trol to the oper­at­ing munic­i­pal­i­ty. RCW 14.08.330.

And it specif­i­cal­ly said that “[n]o oth­er munic­i­pal­i­ty in which the air­port … is locat­ed shall have any police juris­dic­tion of the [air­port].” Id.

The leg­is­la­ture under­stood that because air­ports are unique, com­plex oper­a­tions, they should be gov­erned by one and only one local government—the one that spe­cial­izes in con­trol­ling and oper­at­ing them. This desire to have legal clar­i­ty at air­ports is espe­cial­ly under­stand­able con­sid­er­ing that air­ports can strad­dle mul­ti­ple munic­i­pal, coun­ty, or state lines.

Giv­en that a major­i­ty of our Supreme Court thinks the exist­ing statute is ambigu­ous, the Leg­is­la­ture may wish to amend the Revised Air­ports Act to more clear­ly define where a city’s author­i­ty ends and a port’s begins.

In the mean­time, because the City of SeaT­ac’s inter­pre­ta­tion of the state laws gov­ern­ing ports has pre­vailed, work­ers earn­ing the low­er min­i­mum wage set by the Port of Seat­tle will see their pay go up. That’s a vic­to­ry to be celebrated.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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One reply on “State Supreme Court rules that SeaTac’s Good Jobs Proposition applies to airport workers”

  1. Weird deci­sion, but fan­tas­tic news for the work­ers! I’ll drink a toast in their hon­or tonight. 

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