Unions, activists voice concerns about Wal-Mart’s plans for 6 D.C. stores

November 16, 2011

An announcement by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and Wal-Mart that the retail giant now plans to open six stores in the District is prompting criticism from labor unions and grass-roots groups that question whether wages will be competitive and whether a promised community benefits agreement will be adequate.

Gray (D) said his administration and Wal-Mart will disclose an agreement within days, and it will probably have “numerical targets” for the number of city residents to be hired into an estimated 1,800 jobs at six stores, among other concessions.

A year ago, Wal-Mart unveiled an ambitious plan to open four D.C. stores as part of its move to enter urban markets. It has added two more D.C. stores: one on the first floor of an apartment development called Fort Totten Square in Ward 4 and the other as the anchor of Skyland Town Center, a long-neglected strip mall in Ward 7, the mayor’s home ward.

“For my long-suffering neighbors, I think relief is on the way,” Gray said at a news conference at Hillcrest Recreation Center, where he made the announcement.

Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) lobbied Wal-Mart executives to solidify plans to locate at the Skyland property, which the city has spent more than $12 million to take control of through eminent domain. “Until there’s an anchor tenant, there’s no development,” said Brown, who, like Gray, lives in Hillcrest.

But residents and members of labor unions questioned what the city was giving up to get jobs and economic development. More than two dozen members of the Living Wages, Healthy Communities Coalition — an umbrella organization better known as Respect DC and made up of labor unions, churches and other groups — stood and sat in force in bright yellow shirts at the news conference.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said that for proprietary reasons the company did not want to disclose starting salaries, but he challenged the public to look at the chain’s store in Alexandria for comparison. “We are as good. Union and non-union alike,” he said.

After the news conference in the recreation center’s parking lot, a few of the opponents gathered around Restivo. He pointed them to the company’s Web site to compare salaries with surrounding jurisdictions. Full-time hourly associates in Maryland and Virginia earn an average $11.65 and $11.82, respectively, according to the company’s Web site.

The coalition has proposed a community benefits agreement that would require that 65 percent of workers in the D.C. stores be full-timers and that each worker receive a monthly $50 transportation subsidy. Benefits for workers and customers would include car and bike-sharing at the stores, according to the coalition’s proposed agreement.

But the mayor and Wal-Mart may have to start first with selling the stores, particularly the new ones at Fort Totten Square and Skyland, to the community.

E-mail discussion groups lit up Tuesday night after The Washington Post first reported the plan. Residents complained of potential traffic and poor wages for workers. They also expressed a general distaste for Wal-Mart stores.

Under Wal-Mart’s plan, there will be a store in Ward 5, one in Ward 6 and two each in wards 4 and 7.

Some residents in Ward 4 were already opposed to the planned store at a former car dealership on Georgia Avenue. Now Fort Totten Square is added to the mix. “Any other thing Wal-Mart wants to do, we expect them to come talk to the community,” said council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who did not attend the news conference.

Robin Marlin, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7, said there are mixed emotions among residents. “We feel now that it’s an opportunity to get something,” she said.

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