For his veto, Gray was lambasted by labor leaders and clergy for bowing to corporate interests and Wal-Mart, which had threatened to walk away from at least three of its six planned District stores.
But in an interview following the veto, Gray said the city’s lack of available and affordable groceries and retail — including at the boarded-up Skyland shopping center, where after pressure from Gray, Wal-Mart would put a store near the mayor’s longtime family home — outweighed any urge he had in setting a national precedent.
“One city,” said Gray, using his slogan for city unity, “is being able to have reasonable access for people wherever they are, wherever they live, and nobody can make that argument, frankly, about access to some of these amenities. You look of areas of Ward 7 and 8, they are really food deserts, retail deserts.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a lead sponsor of the bill for many years, still fiercely disagrees that more Wal-Marts with their low-paying jobs is the answer. Wal-Marts moving into the District are sure to displace local grocers and retailers, he said, and there’s no guarantee that District residents, and not commuters from Maryland or Virginia, will get the work.
“If the answer is we perpetuate low-wage jobs, we’re not helping people,” Mendelson said.
Mark Federici, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, said the decision will reverberate beyond Washington.
“Wal-Mart wants to be in Washington, in the world’s most powerful city, so they can say that if their [wages] are okay here, they are okay anywhere,” Federici said, as he participated in a protest outside the Landover Wal-Mart this month.
The legislation brought to the fore as strongly as at any time during Gray’s nearly three-year tenure the city’s fault lines over race, class and opportunity. Rebekah Peeples Massengill, author of “Wal-Mart Wars: Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century,” said she was not surprised the living-wage effort appeared headed for failure.
“For people in underserved areas, Wal-Mart can bring goods that would not otherwise be available, and the trade-offs for what that means for workers at those stores is a very complex moral discussion,” she said.
Messengill found in her work that Wal-Mart’s low wages have helped perpetuate an economy where people depend on the store’s inexpensive goods. But the Princeton University sociologist said its consumer role extends far beyond the poor.
Veronica Harris steered her cherry-red Mercedes C-Class Kompressor near the front of the Landover parking lot on a recent evening. Her shopping list? A toddler-sized Redskins jersey for her nephew. At $24.97, it’s cheap enough that when he outgrows it, Harris expects to simply buy another.
The private foster-care consultant also wandered through the aisles of refrigerated goods, past the Horizon organic fat-free milk for $3.98 — $1.01 less than at Whole Foods near Logan Circle, and past the piles of Chobani yogurt — 40 cents cheaper than at Yes Organic Market on 14th Street NW.
Harris, who swings by Wal-Mart about once a week on her way to see clients, picked up a guilty pleasure: a $3.30 roll of Wal-Mart’s Great Value buttermilk biscuits.
“I guess I could have gone to Giant, but I like these better,” said Harris, who lives three blocks from the grocery store in Columbia Heights, as well as Target, for that matter, where the Redskins jersey was only two cents more. But it didn’t have her nephew’s size in stock.
Roy and Precious Borlend wait for rush-hour traffic to quiet down along 16th Street outside their apartment in Northwest Washington when they need diapers and wipes, or milk and juice, for their 2-year-old son. They pack up the family minivan and trek 30 minutes around the Capital Beltway to a suburban Maryland Wal-Mart.
“I love and hate Wal-Mart. You save on everything — everything — but I hate feeling like it is the only place I can buy things because of that,” said Precious Borlend, a public preschool teacher.
The Borlends left with $100 worth of merchandise in bulging bags, and saved perhaps $10 or $20 toward their elusive first home.