D.C.’s anti-Walmart bill is almost dead. Is a living wage bill next?

September 12, 2013

The Wal-Mart planned for East Capitol Street. (A&R Cos.)

As expected, Washington, D.C., Mayor Vince Gray has just vetoed a bill that would have forced very large retailers — namely Wal-Mart — to pay a minimum wage of $12.50. Unless the council musters the votes to override it, that's a defeat for the unions that have made the bill their number one priority, and for campaigns nationwide trying to organize Wal-Mart workers. But the effort likely isn't for naught: To compensate for having deeply disappointed labor interests in the city, Gray says he'll push for a higher minimum wage for everyone in the city, which could benefit many more workers than the few thousand Wal-Mart would've employed.

The biggest opposition talking point for the bill, after all, was the fact that it targeted only a small sector of the workforce — companies with a collective bargaining agreement were exempt. That made sense for labor unions, both because it could provide leverage for negotiations with unionized stores like Safeway and Giant, and also because if gave Wal-Mart an incentive to allow its own workers to organize. But the discriminatory nature of the bill brought out the fiercest opposition from trade groups.

"It's really all about unionization," said National Retail Federation senior vice president for government relations David French, at a recent media roundtable. "What's special about retail?"

Sure, making Wal-Mart pay higher wages might have dragged up everybody else's, eventually. But simply raising the floor is a better way to do that, even if it's not quite as high as the council had wanted Wal-Mart to go. D.C.'s at least as liberal as California, after all, which is about to raise its minimum to $10. And as the city continues to fill with people who are less likely to go to the suburbs for cheap groceries, retailers will be more willing to pay higher wages to reach them.

Gray's decision, which carries echoes of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's veto of a similar measure back in 2006, also illuminates the collective action problem that faces the cities Wal-Mart tries to enter: Even if the super-retailer has had a pernicious effect on wages, the right to organize, working conditions, and main street economies nationwide, it's probably a net good for some individual cities. That's true especially in places like D.C.'s low-income neighborhoods, which have few jobs and businesses to kill. So both those who think Wal-Mart is bad for working people overall and those who think it will help their particular area can be right, just at different levels of geography.

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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Dylan Matthews · September 12, 2013