Mayor Vincent Gray’s veto of a living wage bill aimed at big box retailers—and the D.C. Council’s failure to override that decision—could come at a great political cost, critics say.

On Sept. 12 Gray vetoed the {Large Retailer Accountability Act} (LRAA), which would have required retailers with stores larger than 75,000 square feet and whose gross revenues total $1 billion to pay their workers $12.50 an hour in wages and benefits.

At a Council meeting on Sept. 17, an attempt to override that decision failed because only six lawmakers—three fewer than the number needed—voted their support. As the vote was announced around 4:25 p.m., dozens of supporters erupted with outrage, chanting, “Recall!” and “We won’t forget!” and bearing signs that read, “My next mayor supports the Large Retailer Accountability Act” as they filed out of the chamber.

“On purely political terms, one should support the bill. It is popular,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who sponsored the legislation. “A majority of citizens support this legislation.”

According to a poll released Sept. 15, 71 percent of D.C. voters support the LRAA, while 27 oppose, and only 1 in 3 thought the mayor’s veto should be withheld. An overwhelming majority of voters (63 percent) also said that in the 2014 D.C. mayoral election, a candidate’s support for the LRAA would make them more likely to vote for that person. The survey of 504 District voters conducted by Hart Research Associates has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

This is “the will of the people,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, of Faith Strategies and Plymouth United Congregational Church of Christ, and a member of the Respect DC coalition, which held a rally before the Council meeting on Sept. 17 to urge councilmembers to override the mayor’s veto.

The mayor has been under pressure from all sides since the D.C. Council approved the measure in July. Large retailers such as Home Depot, AutoZone, Macy’s and Target urged the city executive to veto the bill, saying it was “misguided” and would not improve job quality. Wal-Mart, which has three stores already under construction in the District and three others in the design phase, said it would halt plans for at least three of those stores if the measure went through.

Detractors say the mayor simply folded under the pressure.

“It is hypocritical on the mayor’s part to be talking about home rule and self-determination to Congress then just roll over when a corporation threatens ,” Hagler said.

Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At Large) similarly urged his fellow legislators to stand up and negotiate a better deal for D.C. resident, pointing to Colorado, where, he claimed, Wal-Mart pays its workers $12 an hour.

“We don’t have leadership that negotiates on behalf of the residents of D.C.,” he said in remarks before the roll call. “We can get Wal-Mart and $12.50 an hour if people have the strength to vote for it.”

The mayor’s office and city lawmakers, however, refuted any suggestion that their decision was influenced by big business bullying.

The Greater Wshington Urban League contends that the path to meeting the will of the Council lies in negotiation. “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.”

“The mayor acted in the best interest of the people of the District of Columbia,” said Doxie McCoy, a Gray spokeswoman. 

In his letter to the Council, in which he explained his decision, Gray said the bill was not a true living wage bill since it would only raise the minimum wage for a fraction of the workforce. He also called the measure a “job-killer” that endangered at least 4,000 in the next few years since large retailers would avoid coming to the District, and an economic retardant that would stymie development in underserved communities “for a generation.”

“While the intentions of its supporters were good, this bill is simply a woefully inadequate and flawed vehicle for achieving the goal we all share,” the mayor wrote.

Mendelson argued, however, that sound economic development cannot happen when workers are being poorly paid.

“It is the wrong economic development strategy for the District,” he told the AFRO. “Our development strategy should be predicated on getting good jobs for people not minimum wage jobs.

“I am alarmed that we are acting like other jurisdictions in attracting low-paying jobs that people need food stamps and Medicaid to survive on.”

The situation in the District is not a new one—Chicago tried to pass a similar bill in 2006 and Wal-Mart has been met by other expressions of community opposition whenever it tries to expand into metropolitan areas, researchers said.

“The reasons cities are taking these actions is that Wal-Mart is well-known for its low wages and benefits. Wal-Mart employees disproportionately live in poverty and depend on social assistance to get through the month,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “And research has shown that when Wal-Mart moves into a metropolitan area, it drives down wages, it drives down the number of jobs in that area and it negatively impacts the community.”

The implications of such labor conditions are much graver given the stark economic landscape in which former part-time positions have become major sources of income for some families, Jacobs added.

“Most people in minimum wage jobs are working-age people who provide a substantial slice of their families’ income,” he said. “So the idea that this is people working for ‘pin’ (spending) money simply isn’t true in this economy.”

Executives at Wal-Mart have argued that a raise in employees’ wages and benefits could reduce its ability to provide goods and services at its famously low prices, which the LRAA’s detractors said would negatively impact the District’s lower-income residents.

But several studies, including an April 2011 report co-authored by Jacobs, “Living Wage Policies and Big-Box Retail: How a Higher Wage Standard Would Impact Walmart Workers and Shoppers,” argue that providing a living wage would not be that detrimental.

“We’ve done research that shows that Wal-Mart could easily pay higher wages and even if they passed on the 100 percent of the costs to consumers, the impact would be small,” Jacobs said.


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO