Policy: Labor

How DC living wage activists and Walmart both can claim victory

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"Living wage" activists argued Tuesday that they are still winning the fight despite D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray's veto of their movement's bill targeting Walmart.

They have a point, although the irony of the situation is that Walmart may be winning now, too.

That's because the fight has moved on from a Walmart-specific bill to an across-the-board increase in the district's minimum wage. Walmart has actually supported these in the past because such increases tend to give them the company an edge against its competitors, who often aren't as capable of paying such a wage.

Pastor Graylan Haggler told that to a crowd of 150 or so protesters from the nonprofit group Our DC in front of the D.C. Council building Tuesday and that just getting a shot at raising the wage was enough for the living wage movement to claim victory.

The group was there to demand the council override the mayor's veto. The effort failed when override supporters failed to get enough votes to override the veto.

"Even if they do not vote to override the mayor's veto, we didn't lose. We won. We got two minimum wage proposals before the council," Haggler said.

Indeed, Councilmember David Catania, an at-large independent, has floated a proposed $10.50-an-hour minimum wage, up from the city's current rate of $8.25. Councilmember Tommy Wells, a Democrat from Ward 6, has also proposed an unspecified increase.

Gray hinted he might support such a move in the letter announcing his veto of the council's Large Retailer Accountability Act, which would have forced big-box retailers like Walmart to pay $12.50 an hour, while sparing other D.C. businesses.

"This is an attempt to cover their political keisters," Haggler told the Washington Examiner, arguing that the momentum favored the movement, and sooner or later the council would hike the city's wage. Several other protesters expressed similar sentiments.

But that was a departure from their original purpose. The bill, passed in July, was specifically written to cover only large retail chains such as Walmart and exempted those with union workforces. Walmart reacted by suspending construction on three store sites and vowing to cancel plans for any additional stores in D.C. if the bill passed.

The council ignored the threat. “We’re at a point where we don’t need retailers. Retailers need us,” said Vincent Orange, a Democratic at-large councilman and the bill’s leading advocate at the time.

That left the matter up to Gray. In a Sept. 13 letter, he rejected the bill, warning that it would cost the city 4,000 jobs and stall economic development. Walmart subsequently withdrew its threat to pull out of the district.

In the same letter, though, he vowed to back "a reasonable increase to the district's minimum wage for all workers." (Emphasis in original.)

That would likely suit Walmart just fine. In 2006, Walmart's then-CEO Lee Scott endorsed a federal bid to raise the minimum wage. "There are a number of proposals before Congress. Though we do not intend to take a position on any single piece of legislation, we believe Congress should increase the minimum wage," Scott said at the time.

As long as the increase is the across the board. that means Walmart's competitors must pay it, too. That benefits Walmart because its competitors are not necessarily as capable of paying that rate. The average wage of a Walmart sales associate or cashier currently range between $7.47 to $11.56 an hour, according to Payscale.com.

In other words, the retail giant often already pays above the minimum wage Catania has proposed. Other, smaller stores that can only afford to pay minimum wage will be the ones forced to adjust.

An Our DC activist, who asked to remain anonymous, conceded the point in a conversation with the Examiner. "They can do this because of the profit margins and economies of scale they have," the activist said.

That may make it a Pyrrhic victory for the organized labor groups. A flyer distributed at the event listed the United Food and Commercial Workers, AFL-CIO, and OUR Walmart, a UFCW-backed group, among the backers of the Large Retailers Accountability Act. Their eventual goal was to pressure Walmart to agree to unionization.

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

In related news, at the same event, comedian Dick Gregory compared Walmart to Hitler.

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