08/06/2013 08:53 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Walmart and the Mayoral Field Give D.C. the Bait-and-Switch


Walmart has been crying bait-and-switch a lot recently, as the D.C. Council voted 8-5, twice, to make it and other big box retailers pay a living wage. But an examination of statements made in 2010 and 2011 shows that the living wage and benefits bill, the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), simply legislates what local players who now oppose the bill called for and promised when the retail behemoth first approached the city late in 2010. The real bait-and-switch is happening right now, as politicians who once called for city-wide agreements and reasonable wages at local Walmart stores -- including the mayor and two mayoral candidates -- switch their rhetoric and their votes.

When Walmart first decided to come to town, it privately promised a group of D.C. clergymen that it would pay a starting wage of $13 an hour, and publicly it continues to swear that its average wage is $12.39 an hour. Now that the city is threatening to make large retailers pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour with benefits -- a mere $26,000 per year for the few employees who are allowed to work full-time - Walmart is threatening to pull out.

"I can't help but feel that they were saying whatever they needed to say to get into D.C.," says Reverend Graylan Hagler, who was among the clergymen to meet with Walmart.

For Walmart and its champions in D.C. government, this is far from the first default on promises.

In December 2010, The Northwest Current reported that Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser, whose ward includes the Georgia and Missouri Ave Walmart that's already a year into construction, "said Walmart could have done more work to engage the community by 'laying the groundwork, working with residents, and really forming a partnership' in advance of the announcement.

"Furthermore, Bowser said she believes the city can take steps to make sure the store employs good labor practices, protects local businesses and benefits the area."

Later that month, Mayor Gray went on WTOP's Politics Program with Mark Plotkin, and said, "Walmart wants to come here to develop four stores. My view is they first have to put on the table that they will pay competitive wages... We think $12 and up with benefits is fair."

Statements like these were the bait that reassured unions and concerned citizens that if Walmart came to D.C. it would be under conditions that respected local residents. The switch was soon to come, over the course of 2011.

In February 2011, an editorial in The Northwest Current reported, "Ward 4 Council member Muriel Bowser has suggested that a citywide agreement would be the best tool to ensure maximum benefit for D.C. residents." And again on March 30, 2011, the Current reported a call from Bowser that the city "push for official 'citywide agreements' with Walmart on issues like hiring."

But Council member Bowser, now a mayoral candidate, stopped calling for citywide agreements and "good labor practices," voting against LRAA on both occasions. A September 2011 fundraiser held for her by Walmart lobbyist David Wilmot might have helped influence her thinking.

Wilmot lobbied hard for Walmart that year. In December 2011 he co-hosted a fundraiser for Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander with Mayor Vince Gray, a year after Gray called for Walmart to pay "competitive wages" of "$12 and up with benefits" as a precondition for entering DC.

Walmart also donated $665,000 for D.C.'s summer youth programming, prompting the Washington City Paper's Lydia DePillis to write of Gray's position, "It's hard to demand more from someone while you're busy thanking them for their generosity."

But is it generosity or just a savvy investment? Gray now appears to be leaning toward vetoing the LRAA, unless Council chair Phil Mendelson can find a ninth vote to veto-proof the bill before sending it to the mayor.

Ward 6 "Council martyr" Tommy Wells, who once touted Walmart's potential to bring "average"-wage jobs, surprised some by voting against LRAA. He recently called LRAA a "job-killer" and said, "We need our low-wage jobs," though he has also introduced a broader living wage bill. It's hard to know what the mayoral candidate meant by "average" wages, but the average Washingtonian makes $1,544 per week -- or 187 hours of work at D.C.'s minimum wage of $8.25/hour. (That average tells an incomplete story -- the average white Washingtonian makes about three times what the average black Washingtonian makes. That racist disparity is in part what LRAA is meant to address.)

At a Ward 1 town hall meeting on May 6, 2011 (before his Wilmot fundraiser), Mayor Gray himself laid out some of the best arguments against accepting Walmart's poverty wages in D.C. In response to a question from Mike Wilson, organizer with Respect DC, Gray said:

Frankly, you put your finger on what has been the problem [with Walmart], and that has been the wage level and the absence of benefits. And one of the things we've made clear is that in some instances, the people who work for that firm, and other firms that pay those kind of wages and don't offer benefits, wind up getting public benefits, which cost the city money.

So one of the things I've said to the deputy mayor is that as Walmart considers coming to the city -- and they haven't asked us for any money, but they still have to get building permits and the like -- we're looking to develop a community benefits agreement with them that first and foremost would address the issue of wages as well as benefits. And we have other [companies] that pay better wages... like Costco for example, or Target pays benefits as well as wages. Safeway obviously, Giant -- they all pay at a higher level. We don't want to have a situation in which, one, those who have been good corporate citizens in this city are penalized as a result of that, and then second, the city winds up having to pay for the benefits because the firm is not doing it.