Did Walmart Kill the Living Wage Bill?
D.C.'s big-box living wage bill is dead, barring a surprising move by the D.C. Council.
Mayor Vince Gray vetoed the Large Retailer Accountability Act this morning, calling it "a woefully inadequate and flawed vehicle for achieving the goal we all share.” The Council can override the veto if nine members vote to do so—which would be unlikely, given that only eight supported the bill in the first place. The legislation would have required retailers in excess of 75,000 square feet and with parent companies grossing at least $1 billion to pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour, minus benefits.
Now the question is: What killed it? And more specifically: Is this Walmart's doing?
The Arkansas-based retail giant has been planning six stores in the District, though plans for development of one of its proposed sites recently fell apart, leaving the store on New York Avenue NE in doubt. But in July, Walmart announced that it would cancel plans for three of the stores and re-evaluate its options for the other three if the bill became law. This was a shrewd power play by the company: Either it would get the city to back down on the legislation, or it would have an excuse to scrap its three stores in the poorer parts of town, at least one of which was planned at Gray's urging.
Gray claims in his veto statement that the bill would have killed "more than 4,000 District jobs in just the first few years alone" (emphasis his). That's many more than the few hundred jobs at each of the Walmart stores than may have been scrapped.
But Gray focuses heavily on Walmart in the statement. He writes that President Barack Obama's chief economic adviser has stated that jobs at Walmart are better than the opportunities that would be available to low-skilled workers in the absence of Walmart stores. And he devotes quite a bit of ink to the Skyland Town Center, a project in Gray's home Ward 7 that's near and dear to his heart. Gray insisted that Walmart open a store at Skyland to help anchor the development. And in July, the developer of Skyland said the whole project could fall apart if Walmart pulls out.
I'm awaiting word back from Walmart on whether Gray's veto means the five District stores are definitely back on—and if Walmart made any assurances along these lines to Gray.
Now, if Gray's decision was made purely on the merits of the bill, that's one thing. But if he changed his mind on the legislation after Walmart made its threat to scrap some of its stores, that would set a problematic precedent. What, then, would stop any business that doesn't like a particular piece of legislation from threatening to close stores in D.C. if the bill isn't killed?
Regardless of what you think about the pros and cons of the living-wage bill, it's clear there's one player that got what it wanted: Walmart.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery