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Washington's Battle for a Living Wage (And Does DC Really Need Six Wal-Marts?)

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The Washington, D.C. City Council wants their citizens to be paid a living wage, so earlier this month its members passed a bill requiring big-box stores like Wal-Mart to pay their D.C. employees $12.50 an hour. The bill passed on an 8-to-5 vote, but the city's scandal-ridden mayor, Vincent Gray, is likely to side with big business and low wages and veto the bill. Gray recently said: "We've got Costco...who've talked to us about the possibility of expanding. They're going to be affected by this...So, I've got to look at the full impact." Costco will actually not be affected by this new law as Costco pays their employees an average of $21.96 an hour (and 88 percent routinely work enough hours to receive benefits). And Mr. Gray, instead of looking at the "full impact" this bill would have on large corporations, maybe you should look at the "full impact" this would have on the citizens who elected you. You represent us, not Wal-Mart and Costco.

Soon after the council vote, Wal-Mart said it would abandon three of the six stores it planned to build in D.C., and is evaluating whether to go ahead with the remaining three stores currently being built. But why does our nation's capital need -- or want -- six Wal-Marts? That's one Wal-Mart for every 10 square miles. I could see the push for putting in one store, but six? Yes, these stores would create some jobs, but are these the kind of jobs we want to attract to D.C.? A 2009 U.C. Berkeley study discovered that "Wal-Mart store openings lead to the replacement of better paying jobs with jobs that pay less. Wal-Mart's entry also drives wages down for workers in competing industry segments such as grocery stores." And according to a report released by the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in May, "...low wages leave Wal-Mart workers unable to afford the necessities of life, [and] taxpayers pick up the tab." One Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Wisconsin "costs taxpayers at least $904,542 per year and could cost taxpayers up to $1,744,590 per year -- about $5,815 per employee," the House report found.

The new law passed by the D.C. Council would force Wal-Mart (which made a cool $15.7 billion in net profits last year) to pay its employees $12.50 an hour at the three stores being built in the district and would likely dissuade them from building the three additional stores. What's wrong with that? Three stores are way more than enough, and why is Mayor Gray against this? Why is he afraid to stand up to Wal-Mart? New York mayoral candidate and city council Speaker Christine Quinn has no problem standing up to America's largest low-wage employer, saying recently: "As long as Wal-Mart's behavior remains the same, they're not welcome in New York City. New York isn't changing. Wal-Mart has to change."

This is a local story, but at the same time it's not. The D.C. government has an amazing opportunity to stand up to Wal-Mart and demand a living wage for their citizens, which would hopefully encourage other cities and towns across the country to do the same -- to say to Wal-Mart and other big-box stores: you can do business here, but you have to pay your workers a fair and livable wage.

Tell Mayor Gray you want D.C. residents to be paid a living wage: 202-442-8150 | @mayorvincegray | eom@dc.gov