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Working In These Times

Friday, Sep 13, 2013, 12:50 pm

D.C. Mayor Vetoes Bill To Lift Wal-Mart Wages

BY Bruce Vail

Respect DC is fighting to ensure a living wage for employees of six planned Wal-Mart stores in Washington, D.C. (Respect DC / flickr)  

District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray disappointed labor supporters Thursday when he vetoed a bill that would have boosted the minimum wage for some retail workers at a time when Wal-Mart is moving forward with a major expansion in the nation’s capital.

The bill, carefully targeted at workers hired at six new stores planned by Wal-Mart inside the D.C. city limits, would have established a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour, a sharp increase from the current minimum of $8.50. Called the "Large Retailer Accountability Act" (LRAA), the bill passed the City Council July 10 by an eight-to-five vote.

Supporters of the bill are not giving up, however, and have already begun a campaign to override the veto, says Mike Wilson, a spokesperson for Respect DC, an ad-hoc coalition of labor unions and other groups opposed to Wal-Mart's expansion into D.C. Under local rules, an override requires the votes of nine City Council members, so LRAA proponents are now focusing on changing the vote of a single Council member, he says.

The Wal-Mart bill has been a high profile political issue in D.C. for nearly a year, with intense lobbying of the City Council by both sides. Wal-Mart upped the ante considerably in July, when it announced it would cancel plans to build three of the new stores if the city enacted the LRAA, according to Wilson. Construction of the other three is already underway, and the expected store openings in 2014-2015 will presumably not be affected whether Gray's veto is overridden or not, Wilson says.

Wal-Mart’s move into D.C. is part of its national strategy, announced in 2005, to move into urban areas. Since then, says Wilson,the company has developed a sophisticated strategy to overcome local opposition by "spreading money” around, and by co-opting local politicians hungry for new economic development projects in their neighborhoods.

Organized labor has been the strongest element of the Respect DC coalition. United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400, headquartered in nearby Landover, Md., has been at the forefront, as has the multi-union Metro Washington Council AFL-CIO.

As the union representing thousands of federal workers living in D.C., the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) issued a statement Thursday denouncing the veto: “Mayor Gray's decision to veto the living wage bill is wrong morally, economically and politically. Allowing Wal-Mart to pay wages that are so low that workers are unable to support themselves and their families is reprehensible. By vetoing this legislation, Mayor Gray has placed the interests of big corporations over the wellbeing of the citizens he was elected to serve,” stated AFGE President David Cox.

Gray, a Democrat, signaled a "divide-and-conquer" strategy in dealing with the city’s unions by hosting a press event earlier this week  to announce a “project labor agreement” that will cover construction of a planned $300 million soccer stadium. The agreement was sought by the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) as a way to insure the use of union labor on the project, and the press event highlighted the role of influential BCTD official Brent Booker

Wal-Mart opponents have now focused their attention on City Councilman Tommy Wells, a Democrat who has expressed some support for living wage measures in the past, but who criticized LRAA as unfairly targeting Wal-Mart alone. Respect DC’s Wilson tells Working In These Times that Wells is expected to be a candidate for mayor himself next year, and is therefore considered the council member most likely to be convinced to change his vote and provide the margin of victory to override Gray’s veto.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA's Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper's New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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