Wal-Mart asked to make major concessions


Wal-Mart is being hit by a range of demands, including training programs, transportation improvements and support for small businesses. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Ever since Wal-Mart announced plans to open its first stores in the District, workers’ groups, unions and community activists have argued that the chain ought to be required to make certain concessions to the city before being allowed to open.

This week those requests will be put in writing, as a coalition of partners behind the “Respect DC” campaign plan to unveil at a Thursday press conference a three-page tally of community benefits they want Wal-Mart to provide. The list includes demands that the company pay all workers at its D.C. stores at least $12.50 per hour, hire D.C. residents for 75 percent of the 1,200 jobs it expects to create and finance transportation improvements, training programs for prospective workers, support for small businesses and other benefits.

Leaders of the group, called the Living Wages, Healthy Communities Coalition, say Wal-Mart’s entrance into D.C. represents an opportunity to organize the city’s residents and demand more from companies that operate in their communities.

“This is not about picking on Wal-Mart,” said Marina Streznewski, coordinator of the DC Jobs Council, an alliance of nonprofits focused on job training. “It’s about doing what’s best for the residents of the District of Columbia.”

Real estate developers in the District commonly submit to community benefits agreements as concessions when seeking zoning changes or other approvals. Some developers have paid for improvements to neighborhood facilities like parks and roads, or made contributions to charities or schools.

Last year, as it announced plans to open dozens of stores in Chicago, Wal-Mart agreed to pay an hourly minimum of $8.75, hire local residents and make as much as $20 million in charitable contributions. In Washington, the company has begun donating to local charities, including more than $2 million in fiscal 2010, and expressed interest in contributing further to workforce development efforts, including possibly with the University of the District of Columbia.

It’s unclear what Wal-Mart would agree to, especially given how little it needs from the city government in order to open the four stores, on Georgia and New Jersey avenues in NW, New York Avenue NE and East Capitol Street. The company has not requested subsidies and although two of the properties are on publicly owned land, none of the four requires major zoning changes or approval by the D.C. Council. The company says the stores would create 1,200 jobs with competitive wages and offer fresh groceries and other goods at low prices.

Two proposed D.C. Council bills could affect Wal-Mart’s plans by requiring community benefits agreements or certain wages, but Mackenzie Baris, lead organizer for DC Jobs With Justice, said the the coalition wasn’t waiting around for council action.

“We really believe that a voluntary community benefits agreement is important regardless of the legislation,” she said.

The coalition’s request comes as a University of California at Berkeley study concluded that if Wal-Mart were to pay all of its U.S. workers at least $12 per hour, it would cost the company about 1 percent of its annual sales.

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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