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Dynamite vs. dairy cows: The odd legal foundations of Minneapolis labor law

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Dairy cows, a dynamite cartridge and the skyline of Minneapolis.
Century-old cases involving milk purity and the shack of a rogue explosives lover in Duluth have become weirdly relevant in the battle over Minneapolis’ sick leave and minimum wage ordinances.
Evan Frost | Andrew Krueger | Popular Science Monthly Volume 56 via Wikimedia Commons

Legally speaking, the ink has barely dried on the new employment ordinances Minneapolis has passed to regulate pay and time off in the city. A sick leave measure was approved in 2016, and the new march to a $15 minimum wage started to phase in just last year.

But on Tuesday in front of the Minnesota Supreme Court, defenders and detractors of the new regulations were literally arguing about spilled milk from more than 100 years ago.

It turns out one of the decisive precedents over the regulatory authority of cities involved a legal battle over the sale of milk in Minneapolis.

Around 1900, the city passed an ordinance requiring anyone selling milk in the city to have the originating cows inspected and subjected to a tuberculin test. It was the first city in the United States to pass such a restriction.

Bovine tuberculosis is zoonotic and can be passed to humans through milk, although Minnesota cows have been considered TB-free since 2011, according to the state’s Board of Animal Health.

But back before near-universal pasteurization and mechanical refrigeration, Minneapolis was determined to stop the disease at the source, even if imperfectly. A bovine TB test at the time was admittedly imprecise.

Suddenly, at the Minneapolis City Council’s bidding, veterinarians were on farms around the area certifying “healthy” herds. On April 21, 1908, the city even seized and poured out six cans of milk from uncertified cows.

Milk producer Ole Nelson sued and lost. The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the ordinance in Nelson v. Minnesota in 1910.

On Tuesday, the attorney for the city of Minneapolis said that was the case the Supreme Court justices should look to if they wondered whether the city’s 2017 sick leave law could apply to employers outside of the city limits.

The city says anyone who works 80 hours a year in Minneapolis gets paid sick leave.

“In Nelson, there was no threshold,” Minneapolis Assistant City Attorney Sarah McLaren told the court. “A drop of milk, and you’re subject to the ordinance.”

Opponents to the ordinance had a more explosive contention.

In 1900, Duluth outlawed the storage of explosives and other hazardous material within a mile of the city.

Sure enough, a rogue explosivist named Frantz D. Orr set up a dynamite shack just outside Duluth city limits. He was cited and found guilty of violating the ordinance, but the Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

That’s the precedent Christopher Larus, the attorney for the appellant, Graco Corp., argued.

“The city takes the position that if it identifies some proper municipal goal — the health of its own citizens — it is untethered in its ability to obligate citizens outside of its geographic boundaries,” Larus told the justices.

“This court,” he added, “has for more than 100 years recognized a concept, a legal prohibition against a city imposing its judgment outside of [its] borders.”

That’s basically the case the Minnesota Supreme Court must decide regarding the Minneapolis sick leave case: Is this a dairy cow case, or a dynamite case?

There’s one more Minneapolis case before the court — Mangold Midwest vs. Richfield — that holds another curious precedent.

The city passed a Sunday sales ordinance in 1962 that banned sales for stores with four or more employees, while state law banned all grocery sales on Sundays, blocking department store sales.

Mangold Midwest and several other companies had a store at 7701 Nicollet Ave. (A Menards stands there now). The store opened for business, got a citation and set a legal challenge to the ordinance.

State law did not specifically ban such Sunday sales, and the court upheld the city’s ability to regulate Sunday sales — although the enforcement proved pretty arbitrary.

That’s the city’s position. The Chamber of Commerce told the justices that a “relief valve” provision put in the state’s most recent minimum wage inflation index was proof that lawmakers intended for the state to keep at least some control of wages, and thus the city’s wasn’t free to set its own.