DC Mayor Vincent Gray’s recent decision to veto a controversial “living wage bill” left members of the DC City Council painfully divided. Some saw the legislation, which would have required the city’s largest retailers to pay at least $12.50 per hour in wages and benefits, as an important tool for moving workers out of poverty. But like the Mayor, some other council members viewed the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA) as a job killer.
There were no such divisions among the cadre of activists gathered inside and outside the Wilson building on Sept 17, hoping for the nine council votes needed to override the Mayor’s veto.
“We’re here to say: you need to listen to your boss!” announced the Rev. Graylan Hagler to the crowd awaiting the council’s decision. Hagler and the various advocacy groups present, including OUR DC, Respect DC and the AFL-CIO, called on the mayor and council members to remember the public mandate. “You can’t keep a job if you don’t listen to your boss,” Hagler insisted. The protesters cheered, holding up signs that read “My next mayor supports the LRAA.”
Their efforts ultimately fell short. When, in a 7 to 6 decision, the council allowed the veto to stand, the protesters struck up a chant of “we won’t forget!” They pledged that in the next election, they would punish the Mayor and the lawmakers who supported him. (Voting to override the Mayor’s veto were Council chair Phil Mendelson, and council members Kenyan McDuffie, David Grosso, Vincent Orange, Jim Graham, Jack Evans and Marion Barry. Casting votes that allowed the veto to stand were council members Yvette Alexander, Muriel Bowser, Mary Cheh, Tommy Wells, Anita Bonds and David Catania.)
The bill was passed by the council in July only to be vetoed by Mayor Gray early in September. But during its short life, the measure became the focus of a national debate over low-wage jobs. According to living wage advocates, the LRAA would have set an important precedent in tackling corporate greed, preventing exploitation, and lifting families out of poverty. It would have required retailers with over $1 billion in revenues and operating stores over 75,000 square feet to compensate their employees at a rate that would have been substantially higher than the current city minimum wage of $8.25 per hour.
LRAA advocates saw the bill as a forceful challenge to the business model responsible for the low wage standard, a model they say pits consumers against workers, lower prices against higher wages, any job against no job. When employers pay poverty wages, they argue, the taxpayers end up making up the difference in food stamps, housing assistance and other types of support.
“What good is a job if you’re still poor, if you’re still dependent on government assistance, if you’re still dependent on even getting other jobs to survive?” asked Erica Smiley, Director of Campaigns at Jobs With Justice (JWJ), a national organization engaged in the effort to address the problems with low-wage jobs. She and other LRAA supporters pressed the city government to hold highly profitable companies like Wal-Mart accountable for their workers’ welfare. They also cited public policy research concluding that Wal-Mart could well-afford to pay higher wages, lifting people out of poverty while boosting the overall economy.
“Large retailers could pay full-time, year-round workers $25,000 per year and still make a profit – satisfying shareholders while rewarding their workers for the value they bring to the firm,” wrote Catherine Ruetschlin of Demos, a New York City-based think tank, in a study entitled “Retail’s Hidden Potential.” Since “low-income households [are] more likely to spend new earnings immediately”, the companies – and the national economy — would eventually profit from their customers’ increased spending power, too, she wrote.
Ruetschlin argued that some retailers, including Safeway and Costco manage to offer low-priced goods while paying their workers comparatively generous wages.
Wal-Mart, the biggest corporation targeted by the bill, raised the stakes in the battle when it threatened to cancel plans to open six new stores in the District if the LRAA was allowed to stand. The giant retailer’s abandonment of the District would have deprived underserved areas of “jobs, economic development opportunities and more affordable shopping options,” Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo asserted.
For the mayor, the choices seemed stark.
“This bill did not represent a choice between low-wage jobs and better jobs; it represented a choice between jobs and no jobs,” he said in one tweet.
Gray informed the DC Council of his decision to veto the bill in a letter to council chairman Mendelson on September 12.
“The bill, while well-intentioned, is flawed and will fail to achieve its intended goals,” Gray concluded. One of his major criticisms centered on the bill’s “arbitrary” exemption for retailers with labor agreements, benefitting unionized retailers like Safeway, and only fueling Wal-Mart’s fierce opposition to what the company characterized as “discriminatory legislation.”
Even as he vetoed the bill, Gray expressed his belief in the living wage cause.
He proposed to “raise the minimum wage for all District residents – regardless of who employs them.” At the same time, several members of the council moved forward with new legislation geared toward raising the city’s minimum wage. One measure, the “Living Wage for All DC” bill, introduced by Wells, would raise the minimum wage to $10.25 over the course of two years. Another, by Bowser, would establish a commission to consider revising the city’s minimum wage. A third, by Orange, would raise the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour in four annual steps.
The LRAA may be dead but the bill’s supporters believe their cause is gaining momentum. In the District and across the country, legislative efforts are moving forward to raise wages, said Erica Smiley, of Jobs With Justice.
“They may think this is the end of this bill in DC but frankly, we’re looking to move this to San Francisco, to New York, anywhere, everywhere where we can finally get a precedent.”