Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Petula Dvorak: Why Vincent Gray should veto the living wage bill

Matt McClain/The Washington Post - A Wal-Mart store under construction is seen along Georgia Ave. NW near Missouri Ave. NW on July 9, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Wal-Mart has said that if the D.C. Council passes a living wage bill into effect that it would impact their plans for proposed stores in the area.

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It pains me to say this, but Wal-Mart’s gotta win this one, Mr. Mayor. (Insert frowning smiley face.)

In a much-debated 8 to 5 vote, the D.C. Council passed a bill last week that would make big-box, billion-dollar retailers coming into the District (um, Wal-Mart?) pay their workers a minimum $12.50 an hour.

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D.C. lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a bill requiring certain large retailers to pay their employees a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage, a day after Wal-Mart warned the law would jeopardize their plans in the city. The bill now awaits Mayor Vincent Gray’s action.
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D.C. lawmakers gave final approval Wednesday to a bill requiring certain large retailers to pay their employees a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage, a day after Wal-Mart warned the law would jeopardize their plans in the city. The bill now awaits Mayor Vincent Gray’s action.

The living wage bill is a way of singling out this billion-dollar behemoth to boost the fortunes of hundreds of low-wage workers. They would make 50 percent more than the $8.25 minimum wage.

And that sentiment makes me and lots of other bleeding hearts who may have grown up in working-class homes or struggled in minimum-wage jobs fist-pump in triumph.

I want working people to make a decent living. I want to make a dent in the growing chasm between the poor and the rich. I want the destroyer of small-town businesses and purveyor of made-in-China smiley faces to offer some recompense for its sprawling, depressing stores, for its crushing effect on the American economy and its unequal treatment of female workers.

It would make a great Disney movie, wouldn’t it? The city that’s not even a state stopping the big, blue bully in its tracks.

But this bill isn’t going to be the way to do it, I’m afraid.

Wal-Mart promised it will walk away from three of its six stores if the $12.50-an-hour mandate stands. And at this point, the people of this city need Wal-Mart more than Wal-Mart needs us.

Only Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) can decide what happens now. If he vetoes the bill, Wal-Mart stays. If he signs it — we’ll see.

It’s a multimillion-dollar game of chicken.

Gray did one of his community walkabouts Saturday, going door-to-door in Ward 7, the community in Southeast that would lose the most if Wal-Mart pulls out. I trailed after him, figuring he’d hear an earful about it from folks east of the Anacostia River, who have far fewer places to shop than residents in other parts of the city.

I watched at least a dozen folks talk to the mayor, and not a single one brought up the Wal-Mart deal.

“And I’m not asking them about it,” Gray declared, as we both boiled in the afternoon sun and he ordered a service request for a crumbling sidewalk.

When I visited each resident after the mayor’s entourage left and pressed them to talk about the issue, every one of them said Wal-Mart needs to win this one. None of them had a burning desire to raise the minimum wage in this city.

“I understand the salary concerns, but that’s a fight we can fight later,” said Alphonzo Ransome, 53, who works for D.C. Public Works and relies on Wal-Mart to help him make ends meet. He has one daughter in college and a high school senior at home, so every penny counts.

He left the front door of his brick duplex in the middle of our conversation to wheel out a shiny, red Radio Flyer trike he bought as a gift for a family member the night before.

“It was $79 at Toys R Us. I found it for $49 at Wal-Mart,” he explained.

“When it comes to D.C., it’ll really change some areas. Some of these places in the city haven’t seen development in 100 years. This will change everything,” he said.

Indeed, the Skyland Town Center site in Ward 7 is supposed to be anchored by Wal-Mart. Without it, that project will certainly die.

Council member Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), one of the leaders in the living wage legislation, said the city doesn’t need to cower from Wal-Mart’s threats. “We’re at a point where we don’t need retailers,” he said last week. “Retailers need us.”

I’m not so sure about that. Does a company with sales of nearly $470 billion need little old dysfunctional D.C.?

“They don’t need us. We do nothing for them. And that’s the way it is, cold as it sounds,” said one homeowner in Ward 7 who didn’t want his name in the paper. “They have the upper hand right now.”

Working at Wal-Mart is not a good job for most folks. I’ve met dozens of people at homeless shelters and at food banks who couldn’t pay their bills working at Wal-Mart because the store had cut their hours and benefits.

But the same could be said of the people working at Target or McDonald’s or CVS — all chains that wouldn’t be affected by the living wage bill.

At McDonald’s, the worker eyeing me from behind the register said she makes $8.25 an hour. The clerk at Whole Foods: $10.25. The barista — who really deserves bonus pay for all the venti-triple-soymilk-no-foam-macchiatos he has to craft — makes $9 an hour. “With tips, it goes up about a dollar an hour,” he told me.

“They want Wal-Mart to pay people $12.50? Really? That’s crazy,” said Keana McGill, as she was folding some slinky black panties into a hot-pink Victoria’s Secret bag.

I thought she was going to say that even $12.50 an hour isn’t really a living wage in an expensive city like D.C., and that any Wal-Mart employee forced to wear those ugly blue vests deserves to be paid more.

But no.

“That’s a lot of money for a job at Wal-Mart,” said McGill, a college student who earns the $8.25 minimum wage for her hours of folding panties, hanging negligees and helping women deal with their existential bra crises.

“Working at Wal-Mart, it’s just a job-job. It makes you some money, but then you move on,” she said. “It’s not a career.”

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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