(Updated 9/13/2013) Washington residents plan to converge on the steps of the D.C. Council at noon Sept. 17 to protest Mayor Vincent Gray’s veto of a living wage bill and to urge council members to “do the right thing.”
In July, all but one council member approved the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013 (LRAA), also known as the Wal-Mart bill, which mandated a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour at large stores.
“The bill is not a true living-wage bill, because it would raise the minimum wage only for a small fraction of the District’s workforce,” the mayor said in a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Firms with collective bargaining agreements would have been exempt from the bill’s provisions.
The living wage bill has stirred a national debate over minimum wage laws and is at the heart of the economic development dilemma facing many localities. The Greater Washington Urban League hailed Gray’s decision but pledged to work for minimum wage increases.
“While we understand the intent of the LRAA, we believe that it would limit opportunities for residents of underserved communities to enter the workforce,” GWUL President and CEO Maudine Cooper said Sept. 13.
“We look forward to working with the Mayor and Council on legislation to increase the minimum wage in the District that provides a wider path to upward mobility for our residents.”
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has branded itself as Walmart, threatened to stop plans for three stores underway and three more on the drawing board if the bill, which Gray calls a “job killer,” became law. According to the mayor, other retailers also said they would reconsider opening stores or expanding in the District. He cited Target, Home Depot, Wegmans, Lowe’s, Walgreens, Harris Teeter, AutoZone and Macy’s as examples.
“Mayor Gray has chosen jobs, economic development and common sense over special interests – and that's good news for D.C. residents. Now that this discriminatory legislation is behind us, we will move forward on our first stores in our nation's capital,” Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo said.
“We look forward to finishing the work we started in the city almost three years ago: a plan to bring more jobs, shopping options and fresh food choices to Washington, D.C. residents.”
National Retail Federation spokesman David French applauded Gray "for his leadership on this important issue. With a stroke of his pen, the mayor brought power back to D.C.'s 'Open for Business' sign."
But already-strong objection to Gray’s position is threatening to swell into a chorus. “There’s a huge income divide in the city even with a lot of jobs that are being created in the retail and service sectors,” said Mike Wilson, an organizer with the Respect D.C. campaign, whose slogan is “Retail Without Respect is a Bad Bargain for D.C.”
“We’re very disappointed and upset with the mayor that he chose to stand with large lobbyists,” Wilson said. “It’s unfortunate that the mayor has really allowed himself and the city to be pushed around.”
Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, isn’t buying the mayor’s argument about unequal pay and calls it “gratuitous.”
“He could have signed this one and still led the charge to get this $12.50 applied to everyone,” Williams said.
The union official claims that the mayor’s actions run counter to his past support of a living wage and that Gray’s aides were missing in action as the council deliberated on the measure.
“I really have a difficult time getting over that reversal,” Williams said. “For the mayor to criticize legislation that he didn’t participate in and to give us his best ideas on how to remedy the legislation I think is disingenuous.”
“He could have come in during the debate and made his feelings known. He and his people hid on the sidelines.”
The Rev. Kendrick E. Curry, pastor of Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Southeast Washington, considers a veto without an acceptable alternative for Washingtonians to be “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Curry hosted a news conference with a coalition of diverse clergy, and a town hall session at his church that drew 300 residents and experts from think tanks, labor, retail and politics, he said. He indicated that supporters also delivered petitions with 30,000 signatures to the mayor’s office.
“A living wage is absolutely, positively necessary so that people can start to climb out of poverty in the District of Columbia,” Curry said emphatically, noting that even with a minimum wage of $12.50, an employee would make only $26,000 a year. Minimum wage in Washington is now $8.25 an hour.
“This was a bad decision,” he said of Gray’s veto, “particularly because the large retailers can actually afford $12.50 but they refuse to pay and that's tragic.”
Curry says that allowing Walmart to pay lower wages will undercut other large retailers and imperil the jobs of retail workers who make more, for example, $15 an hour.
“And we haven’t even begun to talk about the carbon footprint, security and construction,” Curry added. “We have to make sure that folks get jobs building the store as well as working in the store.”
“This is not the end,” he emphasized. “We will continue to deal with what’s right and what’s fair. We will continue to press on.”
Yanick Rice Lamb is an associate professor of journalism and interim assistant chair of the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Howard University. Follow her on Twitter at @yrlamb.
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