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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Sep 18, 2013, 1:54 pm

D.C. City Council Defeats Living Wage Bill

BY Cole Stangler

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On September 17, supporters of LRAA gather to urge the city council to overturn the mayor's veto.   (Respect DC / Facebook)

On Tuesday, the D.C. City Council failed to overturn Mayor Vincent Gray’s veto of the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA)—a bill that would have raised the minimum wage at large retail stores in the district from $8.25 to $12.50. The seven votes in favor (with six opposed) were two shy of the number required to override Gray’s veto.

But in a sign that the living wage campaign had a clear impact on the city’s elected leaders, separate legislation was introduced that would increase the minimum wage in D.C. to $10.25 and then peg it to cost-of-living increases—a bill that garnered nine co-introducers.

The LRAA vote marks a victory for Wal-Mart, which had lobbied aggressively against the legislation, and a defeat for a coalition of labor groups that had championed the proposal, led by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) backed-Respect D.C. The bill would have imposed the higher minimum wage on city retailers with $1 billion or more in corporate revenue and 75,000 square feet or more of store space, complicating Wal-Mart’s plans to expand into D.C.

The bill passed the City Council by an 8-5 vote in early July but was vetoed by Mayor Gray last Thursday. Living wage advocates refocused their energies on getting one of the five councilmembers who voted “no” to switch their vote. Advocates particularly targeted Tommy Wells, who is running in next year’s mayoral election and is widely acknowledged to be the most progressive of the declared candidates. But Wells, while introducing his own legislation to raise the minimum wage to $10.25, did not alter his opposition, and only one councilmember, Anita Bonds, changed her vote— to “no.”

At a rally outside the City Council building, just hours before the vote, bill supporters offered harsh criticism of Mayor Gray’s veto. Hoping that the stakes of next year’s looming mayoral election could be enough to convince some councilmembers to change their votes, some protesters held signs that read “My Next Mayor Supports the LRAA” and speakers pointed to the bill’s broad base of public support.   

A Hart Research poll released this week showed that a majority of D.C. residents supported the legislation. Seventy-one percent of D.C. voters backed the bill, while 63 percent said that support for the LRAA would increase a candidate’s appeal. Yet among the leading mayoral candidates, Councilmember Jack Evans, who is considered to be the most pro-business, is the only one to back the LRAA.

Wal-Mart, which had criticized the legislation for unfairly targeting big-box stores and preventing job creation, celebrated the bill’s defeat. “We applaud those Council members who rejected pressure from special interest groups to do the right thing by their constituents,” company spokesperson Steven Restivo said in a statement. “We look forward to being part of the solution in communities across D.C., especially in areas east of the river that have been traditionally overlooked by major retailers, when it comes to creating jobs, economic development opportunities and more affordable shopping options in Washington, D.C.”

Wal-Mart had mounted a stiff campaign against the legislation, threatening ahead of the Council’s first vote in July that it would not build three of its six planned stores in the district if the city passed the bill.

The company has long sought to increase its foothold in urban areas, but has often struggled to gain local support. According to a Respect D.C. organizer, the store’s strategy involves aggressively courting local politicians hoping to benefit from new development projects in their areas. Now that the bill has been defeated, the company has said it will go ahead with the construction of at least five stores in the city.   

David Schwartzman, an activist with the D.C. Statehood Green Party and a biology professor at Howard University, was frustrated by City Council’s refusal to override to the veto in spite of public opinion. 

 “I call this building corporate-occupied territory,” says Schwartzman, gesturing toward D.C.’s City Hall. “D.C. has a near record income inequality and it’s grown over the last 20 years. And this is with Democrats running the show—local elected Democrats who act more like Republicans.”  

“I think we have to increase our organizing efforts, recognize the fact we have majority support and make that a test in the 2014 election for any candidate running for office,” Schwartzman tells In These Times. “[New York Democratic mayoral nominee Bill] De Blasio was elected on a progressive program on progressive taxes and on the issue of income inequality. So I think people are starting to get it. … We’re gonna reach a political tipping point sooner than people think.” 

Rev. Graylan Hagler, a leader of the Respect D.C. coalition, told the crowd assembled before the vote that it had succeeded in shifting the city’s political debate—even if the LRAA ultimately failed. Wells’ bill, which at the moment seems to have a veto-proof majority of 10 supporters, is prime evidence of that.

“Let us continue to keep the pressure on,” Hagler said. “You’ll get the living wage bill one way or another…. We ain’t going nowhere.”

Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.

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