D.C. Council approves ‘living wage’ bill over Wal-Mart ultimatum


Opponents David Catania (left), Muriel Bowser and Tommy Wells confer as Vincent Orange (not pictured) defends the bill to force large retail stores to pay higher wages. Wal-Mart’s threat to withdraw three planned stores did not change any legislators’ minds. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

D.C. lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a bill requiring some large retailers to pay their employees a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage, a day after Wal-Mart warned that the law would jeopardize its plans in the city.

The retail giant had linked the future of at least three planned stores in the District to the proposal. But its ultimatum did not change any legislators’ minds. The 8 to 5 roll call matched the outcome of an earlier vote on the matter, taken before Wal-Mart’s warning.

“The question here is a living wage; it’s not whether Wal-Mart comes or stays,” said council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), a lead backer of the legislation, who added that the city did not need to kowtow to threats. “We’re at a point where we don’t need retailers. Retailers need us.”

Whether or not Wal-Mart needs the District, it had spent the past three years wanting to enter the city in a way no other business had. Activists celebrated Wednesday’s vote, saying the company, which reported net income of $17 billion on sales of $470 billion in its most recent fiscal year, could afford to pay better wages. But the council action threatens to halt several developments anchored by Wal-Mart in neighborhoods long under­served.

“Nothing has changed from our perspective,” Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said in a statement after the vote, reiterating that the company will abandon plans for three unbuilt stores and “review the financial and legal implications” of not opening three others under construction.

The company’s strategy had to this point been calibrated to avoid political conflicts in a city of liberal sentiment, where the retailer’s earlier entreaties had been met with deep skepticism.

Well before it had any solid plans to open stores in the District, Wal-Mart joined the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and began making inroads with politicians, community groups and local charities that work on anti-hunger initiatives.

The campaign was matched with cash. Through its charitable foundation, Wal-Mart made $3.8 million in donations last year to city organizations including D.C. Central Kitchen and the Capitol Area Food Bank, according to a company spokesman. Meanwhile, it has kept a prominent local lobbyist, David W. Wilmot, on a $10,000-a-month retainer to smooth relations with elected officials.

The company has not disclosed what it has spent on plans and designs for its six D.C. stores, but development and retail experts say it is probably in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and possibly as high as $1 million per location. Some of the stores have undergone major design changes since they were first announced.

Should the bill be signed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and pass a congressional review period, retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger would be required to pay employees no less than $12.50 an hour. The city’s minimum wage is $8.25, a dollar higher than the federal minimum wage.

The vote sets up a high-profile veto decision for Gray, who has supported Wal-Mart’s entry into the city, arguing that the company would bring badly needed jobs and retail stores to neighborhoods in need of both. The three stores that the company has pledged definitively not to pursue are all in the city’s eastern half, in areas largely devoid of quality retail.

Gray made a particular push to have Wal-Mart anchor a development at Skyland Town Center, a site along Alabama Avenue SE near the mayor’s home that has long been eyed by city leaders for renewal.

If signed by the mayor, the D.C. Council measure would require retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger to pay their employees no less than $12.50 an hour. The city’s minimum wage is $8.25.

Gary D. Rappaport, the project’s developer, has said Wal-Mart’s withdrawal would put those plans on ice. “If there’s not a Wal-Mart at Skyland, then Skyland is not able to go forward at this time,” he said late Tuesday.

The mayor initially called Wal-Mart’s announcement of its ultimatum “immensely discouraging” and said much the same in a letter to council members delivered Wednesday morning. “It is clear that numerous issues remain unclear about the impact of the bill on the District’s current economic development renaissance,” he wrote.

Gray, who has met recently with Wal-Mart representatives, reiterated “serious concerns over the lost jobs and retail opportunities for District residents that the bill will cause,” in a statement released after the council vote.

Before this week, Wal-Mart had made statements opposing the bill but had not directly threatened to withdraw from its plans.

Seven years ago, when the retailer moved to open its first store in Chicago and the City Council there passed a similar “living-wage” measure, the company indicated then that the bill would cause it to scale back or entirely scrap its plans to open several stores, Mayor Richard M. Daley vetoed the bill, and the council failed to override it.

The debate over the living-wage bill has been highly pitched, echoing conflicts elsewhere in the country over similar measures targeting Wal-Mart and other “big box” retailers.

Several dozen pro-Wal-Mart protesters rallied on the front steps of the John A. Wilson Building on Wednesday, while inside a larger group of living-wage supporters walked from council office to council office hoping to pick up additional votes.

“If you allow a bully to bully you, it’s never going to end,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, the senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and a leader of pro-living-wage group Respect DC. “There will be something else. There will always be another agenda.”

Hagler and union supporters hailed what they called the council’s resolve in the face of Wal-Mart’s warning but acknowledged that fending off a mayoral veto could prove difficult. “We’ve got some work to do,” he said.

Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) said the company’s threats were credible and constituted her “worst nightmare.” She moved unsuccessfully to table the bill Wednesday before voting against it.

“This legislation is a development killer,” she said. “This legislation is a jobs killer.”

Orange, early in the debate, said the “District has arrived” as a desirable place for major retailers to locate. But council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), a mayoral candidate, said that was not true throughout the city. “When I go to Skyland, we have not arrived,” she said. “That project has been some 20 years in the waiting.”

Voting in favor of the bill were Orange, Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), David Grosso (I-At Large), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8). Voting against were Alexander, Bowser, David A. Catania (I-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Tim Craig and Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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