Will the Mayor of D.C. Do Walmart's Bidding and Veto A Living Wage Bill?
Photo Credit: Photograph taken by Jared C. Benedict on 22 February 2004.
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Four weeks after the Washington DC City Council passed a bill to hike some retail workers’ wages, DC Mayor Vince Gray has not yet indicated whether he will let it become law. The measure, the Large Retailer Accountability Act, has drawn fierce opposition from Walmart, whose urban expansion ambitions have recently been dealt setbacks by labor groups and allied critics. With the bill so far one vote short of a veto-proof majority, an apparently likely mayoral veto could spell defeat for a high-profile challenge to the retail giant’s business model.
A member of Gray’s communications team noted Monday that the council had not yet formally transmitted the bill to the mayor, and told The Nation, “He’ll evaluate it when it comes to his office.” “I think the mayor right now is the absolute wild card,” said Reverend Graylan Hagler, a minister and former union chaplain who’s a leader in the labor-community group Respect DC. “There’s no telling what he’s gonna do.”
But LRAA supporters like Hagler have reason to be concerned—and to hunt for a potential convert on the council. In an interview last month, Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins appeared to make the case for a veto, telling the Washington Business Journal that the council’s 8-5 vote had already had “a chilling effect” on the city’s efforts to attract retailers, and saying, “People have no idea how damaging this is.” The Washington Post Editorial Board wrote Monday that Council Chairman Phil Mendelson “denied he was purposely holding the bill in hopes of getting the votes to sustain a veto…and said council members on both sides of the issue don’t want the issue to come to a head during the summer recess, when members are away.”
The LRAA would require “large retailers”—defined by the square footage of their stores and the revenue of their parent companies—to pay employees at least $12.50 per hour in combined wages and benefits. In a Washington Post op-ed published the day before the council vote, Walmart Regional General Manager Alex Barron warned that the law “would clearly inject unforeseen costs into the equation that would create an uneven playing field and challenge the fiscal health of our planned D.C. stores.” Barron wrote that, while the company had so far refrained from “idle threats,” passing the LRAA would lead Walmart to cancel three planned DC stores, and “jeopardize” the three currently under construction. (In an e-mail to The Nation, Walmart clarified that these consequences would only ensue if the bill actually became law). Since then, company officials have argued for a veto in venues ranging from national media to a letter to the editor of the Georgetown student paper.
Columbia public affairs professor Dorian Warren contested what he called Walmart’s “martyrdom” claims, noting that other major retailers like Macy’s and Target could also fall within the bill’s scope. But Warren added that even if the bill had targeted Walmart, “it would make strategic sense,” because “they are the global industry leader, and they set standards for the industry.”
In an e-mail to The Nation, Walmart Senior Director of Communications Steven Restivo noted a recent city report showing weakened DC job growth, and asked, “Why would some Council members continue to pursue legislation that discourages investment in our nation’s capitol by some of the country’s largest retailers?” As evidence that Walmart was unfairly being picked on, Restivo noted that a Respect DC official had told the LA Times that wages at the unionized supermarket Giant were not much higher than the current DC minimum wage of $8.25. (Like many living wage ordinances, the LRAA includes an option for union members to grant their employer an exemption as part of a union contract, offering a potential bargaining chip in negotiations.)