That sign in the picture above is now obsolete.
I imagine most people reading this blog don't think much about minimum wages. I remain grateful that the Feds, states and cities try to set a floor. There needs to be some generally recognized level below which workers' compensation can be named as exploitative and just plain wrong. Perhaps surprisingly, I've observed that, however difficult efforts to raise minimum wages are in legislative settings, they pass pretty easily once put on the ballot. I suspect that the class of persons who vote can't imagine living on the pittance that is the "minimum" -- and few of them own restaurants or run employment services for home health aides trying to pay as little as possible.
In a year in which we are facing a Supreme Court decision on whether the Federal government can create a mandatory system of (semi-) universal health care provision, it might be instructive to look back at how minimum wages came to be. I'm drawing here on Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, a volume I recently wrote about here.
During the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the question of whether governments, state and federal, could mandate minimum wages repeatedly reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court repeatedly ruled a resounding "no" -- neither level of government was to be allowed the legal authority to tell business owners what to pay their workers. These decisions were emblematic of the great conflict of the era: could government use its powers to try to create a stable and sustainable economy or was it barred from meddling with property? FDR responded to these decisions with what he called a plan for "court reform" -- he would add judges to the Supreme Court, presumably judges who would approve the New Deal's economic agenda. Opponents won the war of political spin -- the plan is remembered as "court-packing" and was repudiated even by Roosevelt's friends. But then something surprising happened. David M. Kennedy's volume takes up the story:
Roosevelt didn't have to pack the Court; the justices changed their minds. I find it improbable that our contemporary, oh-so-political, Supreme Court will put aside anti-government shibboleths in order to understand the Constitution is a way that allows government intervention in health care. But I could be wrong. Linda Greenhouse who knows more about the Supreme Court than most anyone after covering it for the New York Times for decades, dares predict that the justices will not narrow the government's powers in order to strike out against Obamacare. We'll see, won't we?
UPDATE: Here's this year's San Francisco Minimum Wage announcement: