As Wal-Mart pursues D.C. store, union assails company's wage levels, other employment practices

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, July 26, 2010

Organized labor has begun an assault on Wal-Mart's employment practices as the company moves to open its first D.C. store.

In a survey commissioned by the retailer's chief opponent, the United Food & Commercial Workers, and released July 21, D.C. voters were asked whether they would support requiring a big-box chain such as Wal-Mart to submit to a list of requirements in order to open a D.C. store.

Among them: pay at least $12 per hour for entry-level employees, designate 75 percent of jobs for full-time work, commit to recruiting local residents for jobs and donate any tax breaks it potentially receives to charitable causes.

The survey was performed by Lake Research Partners, a D.C.-based firm, June 16-21. Of the 400 registered D.C. voters who responded, 76 percent said they would support such a proposal, though they were not offered any alternatives. Voters in Baltimore and in the Philadelphia metropolitan area were given the same question and provided similar responses, with 79 percent and 75 percent, respectively, saying they were supportive.

The three cities are the newest battlegrounds as the chain looks to expand into urban markets. The city council in Baltimore, where Wal-Mart has one store and has announced plans for another, is considering "living wage" legislation that would require businesses or chains that gross more than $10 million annually to pay at least $10.59 per hour. In D.C., Wal-Mart is pursuing a store on New York Avenue NE near the intersection of Bladensburg Road. No such restrictions on large retailers have yet been proposed in the D.C. Council, but the city did pass a law in 2006 requiring city contractors to pay many employees at least $12.10 per hour.

Thomas McNutt, president of UFCW Local 400, which represents local workers in food processing, retail and other jobs, had harsh words for Wal-Mart in a conference call with reporters July 21, saying the company has an abusive atmosphere for workers and is a defendant in dozens of class-action suits. "We're dealing with an employer who has a national reputation of squashing workers' rights," he said.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo, however, said the chain would meet or exceed the wages of competitors when it opened here. He said the jobs many UFCW members hold do not offer the benefits the union was proposing.

"We know people want careers in their own community and we're working hard every day to be part of the solution," he said.

Restivo also said it was clear that D.C. residents want the company's affordable goods and groceries because they are already shopping at Wal-Mart. "Clearly D.C. residents today are shopping the brand whether they're visiting local stores by leaving the District to shop in Northern Virginia or going to," he said.

The UFCW and Wal-Mart, the world's largest company by revenue and the largest private employer in the United States, have tussled in city council chambers around the country, but the dynamic appears to be changing. The UFCW funds the "WakeUpWalMart" campaign, but McNutt acknowledged that, with the city unemployment rate at 10 percent, D.C. residents are eager for jobs and shopping discounts, a seeming boost to Wal-Mart's efforts.

Jennifer Stapleton, a campaign spokeswoman, said the ongoing focus needs to be on ensuring that people don't just have jobs, but jobs that allow them to support their families.

"We've done a bad job of focusing too much on Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart and not enough on what kind of jobs people need," she said. "So it's kind of a pivot."

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