Morris Shearin Washington

Welcoming Wal-Mart - on our terms

Morris Shearin Washington
Sunday, December 5, 2010

As a 22-year resident of the District, I have seen the city's job market ebb and flow and the unemployment rate peak and dip. Through it all, I have watched a significant segment of our working population struggle to make ends meet.

Given that experience, the news that Wal-Mart wants to locate four stores in the District leaves me with mixed emotions. I am always elated at the prospect of meaningful job opportunities in the District. But the confluence of challenging economic times and Wal-Mart's less-than-stellar track record as an employer presents a moral imperative for me, as a faith leader, to seek assurances from the company on behalf of the least, the last and the left out.

I believe that we all have a responsibility to ensure that Wal-Mart establishes itself in the District with a clear and unequivocal commitment to the working class. We can accomplish this by negotiating a "community benefits agreement" setting forth certain conditions ensuring that Wal-Mart will be a good neighbor and employer in our city. Long before any store ever opens, for instance, Wal-Mart could put in writing that it will provide its 800 or so D.C. workers with a living wage.

At a minimum, the community benefits agreement should establish that:

l Wal-Mart will offer full-time, living-wage jobs with benefits.

l More than half of all employees (management and non-management) will be hired from within the District.

l Training programs will be provided to all workers who need them.

l Ex-offenders seeking jobs will be treated fairly.

l Women will be given equal employment, pay and promotional opportunities.

l Stores will observe limited operating hours, to protect the small businesses that will undoubtedly be affected by Wal-Mart's presence.

l There will be genuine community input into all aspects of planning and design.

l Traffic, environmental and economic studies will be carried out to alleviate any negative effects on neighborhoods.

l Wal-Mart will pay all taxes and assessments in full.

l Bonding will be established to ensure fulfillment of Wal-Mart's obligations to workers and the community under the agreement.

Agreement on these points would go a long way toward addressing the concerns about the company that have been raised by labor and community leaders. Wal-Mart is no stranger to this approach; this year, it reached just such an agreement with local leaders in Chicago, which has been cited in news coverage as model for the retailer's foray into the District.

I stand ready to welcome new jobs to the city. But I also stand ready to fight for the right of the people whom I serve to earn a living wage. For Wal-Mart, a company that measures its profits in billions of dollars, a community benefits agreement amounts to nothing less than economic justice. It could be the key to a long and successful presence in the District.

The writer is pastor of Israel Baptist Church in Northeast.

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