When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
The D.C. Council voted to raise the minimum wage at big box stores to $12.50 an hour despite Walmart’s threat to pull out of three planned locations if the measure becomes law. The question now is whether Mayor Vincent Gray will sign the bill. The struggle over the measure points out the challenge of creating jobs that pay a living wage while also bringing affordable retail to underserved parts of the city.
- Patrick Madden Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni of the PBS NewsHour, sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, Ballet Russes, a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, explores how a radical dance company influenced by some of the biggest names in the 20th century art and music.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIBut first, a local debate about Wal-Mart and the living wage puts Washington in the national spotlight. The D.C. Council yesterday approved a controversial bill requiring large retailers to pay their employees $12.50 an hour, raising the stakes in a very public poker game between the city and America's largest retailer. Advocates of the bill say it's a common-sense way to protect workers from a company known for low price and low wages.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIBut Wal-Mart sees it otherwise. Officials say city leaders are changing the rules in the middle of the game, and they also seem to worry this will set a national precedent. So they're threatening to abandon plans for three sites in underserved communities across the city. Here with me to explain all of this is Patrick Madden, reporter for WAMU 88.5 News. Hi, Patrick.
MR. PATRICK MADDENGood afternoon.
BELLANTONIOf course you can join our conversation. We'd love to hear what you think about what's going on with Wal-Mart. 1-800-433-8850. You can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Get in touch on our Facebook page or tweet to us, @kojoshow. So, Patrick, this proposed legislation doesn't target Wal-Mart by name, technically, but it targets retailers that are over 75,000 square feet of retail space and with sales more than $1 billion a year. No ambiguity, though, about who this is really about.
MADDENRight. There's no question this bill was about Wal-Mart. You know, as you mentioned, over 75,000 feet, over a billion in revenue. There were exemptions in this bill for stores with unionized workers and other stores that already were in place in the District. This was about Wal-Mart, and it set up this highly charged fight with the Council over this living wage bill, which would have paid workers -- which will pay workers $12.50 an hour. Now, that's about 50 percent over the city's minimum wage.
BELLANTONIWhich is already higher than the national average, right, at $8.25?
MADDENExactly. And so what happened was the Council, they had already passed this on first reading. So we were -- the second final vote was about to take -- or was taking place yesterday. And the day before, Wal-Mart basically comes out at the 11th hour and says, we are going to pull out of three of these stores, two of which are east of the Anacostia River, in neighborhoods that really need development and retail.
MADDENAnd they said -- basically, it was an ultimatum -- we're going to pull out of these three stores if you go through with this living wage bill, and the Council decided to go ahead with it anyway. And now the pressure's on the mayor.
BELLANTONIYeah. So getting to that, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, he's in a bind. He's been a champion of bringing Wal-Mart to D.C., and, in fact, two of the stores, at least, that are being threatened to stop are in his home ward, Ward 7. So what is he going to do, and what sort of time line are we looking at?
MADDENExactly. I mean, as you mentioned, this is a personal issue for the mayor. I mean, one of the stores, the big store everyone's talking about, is called Skyland, and this is in Ward 7, near where the mayor lives. And he really -- he stuck his neck out to get Wal-Mart to agree to build in Skyland. This was part of the deal when Wal-Mart came to the city. So this -- as you mentioned, bind is a good word because, on one hand, you know, this is a liberal city.
MADDENYou know, the mayor clearly is, you know, pro-labor, pro-union. But on the other hand, we're talking about Skyland. We're talking about jobs for a ward that has a very high unemployment rate. And so what I'm hearing right now is that the mayor will likely go ahead and veto this because, I mean, you know, the mayor's meeting with stores 'cause this potentially not only is about Wal-Mart, but it's also future retailers. Wegmans, Lowe's, other stores that are potentially looking at coming into the city will see this and have second thoughts.
BELLANTONIAnd the vote was 8-to-5, and you need, is it, nine votes to overwrite a mayor's veto? So is there any sort of lobbying campaign going on from the pro-living wage side to be able to overturn...
MADDENI have never seen more lobbyists in my life than the last few days at the Wilson Building from labor advocates to Wal-Mart lobbyists. I mean, this -- the halls of the Wilson Building have just been filled with lobbyists running to councilmembers' offices. And you're right. I mean, if the mayor vetoes this bill -- and, again, I believe he has 10 days to either sign it or veto it -- then it's up to the Council.
MADDENThey have so far eight votes. So they would need -- they have to flip one person to overwrite this veto. And, yeah, there's going to be a lot of phone calls and heavy lobbying going on. But I think the mayor -- I mean, it's a tough call for him, but I'm hearing that the more he looks at this issue, you know, a veto does look likely.
BELLANTONIWell, and speaking of phone calls, we have a few of our own. You can join our conversation at 800-433-8850. Allison, you want to weigh in on the Council's actions yesterday. Thanks for calling.
ALLISONThank you. And I am so proud of the eight Council people, including Jack Evans, who I never thought would have voted for this. And I have sent a very strong email that -- Mr. Tommy Wells' mayoral -- quite frankly -- he would not support a very modest living wage --
BELLANTONIThanks, Allison. I think we're losing you a bit there. But he mentions, you know, Jack Evans.
BELLANTONISo there is an interesting dynamic of who voted which way. You've got a lot of mayoral candidates announced and possible. What is the dynamic?
MADDENExactly. So when you talk about this bill, it's hard to separate the mayoral politics that are happening behind the scenes. You've got Tommy Wells and Muriel Bowser, who voted against this living wage bill. On the other hand, you have Jack Evans, who voted for it. And what's going on behind the scenes? Well, I mean, you have to look at the support of labor groups in the upcoming mayor's race, and that's something that you can't -- I mean, that's something to factor in when these votes are taking place.
BELLANTONIYeah. And Jen in Washington, D.C., has some thoughts about what the mayor should be doing. Go ahead, Jen.
JENI say don't cave, you know? The -- what you're -- what is -- really needs to be asking first, look, you're coming here. You're going to make a lot of money. You're going to give these people jobs, yes, but just subsistence level. Give it -- you're making tons and tons of money. Share this back with the city and help it improve by empowering the people and paying them for their work.
BELLANTONIThanks for weighing in, Jen. So one thing that's interesting here is it's really a national story, too, because you've seen so much debate about Wal-Mart and the sort of movement, you know, both for and against Wal-Mart, and the question is whether them coming to your community helps the local economy or not. I mean, how much of this local story is playing out in the national stage?
MADDENWell, I think that this is clearly about what this potentially means on -- what the national implications would be if the city is able to pass this living wage bill. And that's why I think Wal-Mart is fighting so hard to stop the city and why labor groups are focused so heavily on getting the city to pass this living wage bill. I mean, this would set a precedent. I mean, other cities have had similar debates, similar issues. Chicago comes to mind, New York, where similar situations have taken place, but there's no question that this is a national issue right now.
BELLANTONISo we've got some tweets coming in to @kojoshow. A good question from Fredia: (sp?) "How are Target and Costco responding to this legislation?" And Allen has a follow-up tweet to that, saying that D.C. in -- Costco in D.C. is already paying its workers 12.50 in wages and benefits. So what are the reactions from those retailers?
MADDENRight. So certain companies like this would not affect Costco, but one thing I'm hearing is that for other big-box retailers that wouldn't have these exemptions in place -- Wegmans, for example. I mean, people have been crying for Wegmans to come to -- I think Walter Reed is, I think, one destination people have talked about. But Lowe's, other stores like that, which are looking at coming to the city and are perhaps thinking twice.
MADDENBut the real debate that was taking place at the Council yesterday was, on one hand, councilmembers like Vincent Orange saying D.C. has arrived. We do not need to bend over backwards to get these big retailers to come into the city anymore. And on the other hand, I think it was Muriel Bowser or another councilmember said, well, that's true, but not everywhere in the city -- places like Skyland, east of the river, where there really isn't a lot of development going on. And 600 jobs yesterday may be minimum wage, but they are jobs that people need.
BELLANTONIWe're talking with Patrick Madden from WAMU. He's the District reporter. What about Wal-Mart's side in this? I mean, D.C. lobbyists and lawmakers really made this big effort to bring them down. They flew down to Arkansas, and they're already paying, they say, an average rate, higher-than-average rate of 12.50 right now.
MADDENRight. So I think this sort of gets into semantics of -- on one hand, you hear this 12.50 an hour, and you've heard, on the other hand, well, Wal-Mart will pay an average of $13 an hour. But I think average is the key thing. You don't know what that means. That may not be a starting salary. That may be sort of factoring in folks who are making a lot more than 13 and folks making under that.
BELLANTONIAnd Derek in Fairfax, Va., you're on with us. You've thought about what these jobs pay. Go ahead, Derek.
DEREKYes. I think we're really missing the whole point here. Low-income workers who work at Wal-Mart and other retailers are making a living wage of probably $12 or more. Who is paying that? They're being subsidized by the taxpayer in the form of social services, in the form of food stamps, in the form of all these other things that they would get because they would not be working a living wage.
DEREKThat's the major issue. So I think this bill is wrong because it puts those people out of Wal-Mart. But the bigger issue is they need to put forth legislation that the government will not subsidize any employee who works for not just Wal-Mart, but all these retailers as far as providing these costs because the middle-class workers are picking up their living wage through taxes.
BELLANTONIYeah. Thanks, Derek. We have on the line Anthony, who is an ANC commissioner in Southeast Washington. What are your thoughts on what Mayor Gray should be doing?
ANTHONYI feel that Mayor Gray needs to veto this bill. We do not need to be passing laws that set special rules for one business, but we don't say that other businesses that operate in the city like McDonalds and Gap and Giant and Safeway, they can keep -- continue to offer low wage to their employees. That's not fair at all. And the Council should be able to raise the minimum wage across the board for everybody, not single out one business.
MADDENAnd I think that's probably where this debate is going to go. I think that there will be discussions about an across-the-board living wage bill, and that will be the next step in this because what you are hearing from a lot of people is that it's unfair just to target Wal-Mart and a couple of other companies and say you have to pay $12.50 an hour, but not other companies.
BELLANTONIAnd staying with you for a moment, Anthony, what do you think Wal-Mart would do for your community? Where exactly is your district?
ANTHONYWell, I'm with ANC A-B. We actually border the Skyland property with 7B. And we have been on this issue for years now. China gets something happening at Skyland. And quite frankly, Wal-Mart is the only retailer that actually stepped up and said, you know what, we're going to take on this challenge. So I'm really taken aback by those who were trying to push this company out of our city when they don't even have an alternative plan for Skyland.
ANTHONYWal-Mart stepped up and said, we'll take on that challenge. They made a commitment. The city has to get money preparing Skyland property for Wal-Mart to come in. There were jobs coming into our community, and there are people in our community who will love those jobs. They're not for everybody. If you want a career, aim for a career. But there needs to be something for somebody in our community who do not have a job right now. Those jobs are for those people.
BELLANTONIThank you, Anthony. Patrick Madden?
MADDENWell, yeah. And what you're also hearing is that, well, what does this mean not only for Wal-Mart and Skyland, but the overall sort of master developer for that project? I mean, this really could impact that entire project, which is Anthony talked about, has -- you know, there hasn't been a lot going on there for a long time, and the mayor and others have really tried to kick-start development there, and Wal-Mart was going to be the anchor for that entire project.
BELLANTONIYeah. Well, so, of course, this actually is not the most interesting thing even that came out of the Council meeting yesterday. The Council made a decision to delay the vote for electing our own attorney general here in Washington?
BELLANTONITell us about that.
MADDENThis was amazing. This was a marathon session yesterday at the Council 'cause everything waits till the last moment to get things done.
BELLANTONIJust like Congress.
MADDENAnd at about 10 p.m. last night, they came back to this bill. They're trying -- there's this debate over -- I'll just take a step back. In 2010, voters in the city overwhelmingly approved a ballot initiative to create an elected attorney general, an independent attorney general that would be separate from the mayor's office.
MADDENNow, they've been trying to figure out, well, what does that mean exactly? What's the legal structure going to be? But last night, very late, sort of the last thing they did is they voted to delay this attorney general until 2018. And that has ticked off a lot of people who feel that the Council really is sort of disregarding the will of the people when they pass this referendum.
BELLANTONIA full four years from when it was supposed to happen.
MADDENAnd you sort of have to go back. The last time they sort of took on a referendum or ballot initiative from the voters was term limits. When voters decided they want a term limit, the Council came back and nixed that idea. So there you go.
BELLANTONIWell, thank you for tracking all of this for us. Patrick Madden, District reporter for WAMU, thanks for being here.
MADDENNo problem. Thank you.
BELLANTONIAnd we'll be back to talk about the Ballet Russes movement after a short break. Stay tuned.
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