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D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed a bill that would have required Wal-Mart and other large retailers to pay employees a living wage of at least $12.50 an hour. Calling it a “discriminatory” bill, the mayor wants to move forward with the six planned Wal-Mart stores in the District. Officially known as the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), the bill sparked debate around the city, with supporters staging living-wage protests and opponents calling it a “job killer.” The bill could be overridden by the D.C. Council. We learn more from WAMU’s D.C. politics reporter Patrick Madden.
- Patrick Madden Reporter, WAMU 88.5 News
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAfter taking nearly all 10 days allotted for decision, this morning Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed the so-called living wage bill, which would require Wal-Mart and other large retailers like Home Depot, Target, Auto Zone, to pay workers $12.50 an hour. A boost to the city's current minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. Here to tell us what went down this morning and what comes next is WAMU 88.5's Patrick Madden. He joins us by telephone. Patrick Madden, thank you for joining us.
MR. PATRICK MADDENThank you, Kojo. And that's right. This wasn't a surprise. All the signs were there that the mayor would veto this bill, but that doesn't mean there isn't any drama because, as you sort of eluded to, this veto then now sets off a potential override vote in the council which will happen next week. And it was an 8 to 5 vote to pass the bill, nine votes are needed to override it, so basically the supporters of this living wage bill need to find one more councilmember and then they can override this.
MR. PATRICK MADDENAnd earlier I sat down with Mayor Gray. He explained sort of the litany of reasons why he vetoed this decision. He said he thought about it for a long time, but basically it comes down to two things. One, jobs, you know, economic development. Some of the stores that were planned, like the Skyline for example, it needs sort of -- Wal-Mart will be the anchor for that development.
NNAMDISkyline development being in the mayor's home ward, Ward 7, right?
MADDENExactly. And then Gray's other point is that this isn't really a living wage bill because it only affects a very small percentage of workers, those that would qualify, you know, at Wal-Mart, Home Depot. And he says that he would like to see a minimum wage bill for everyone and wants to work with the council on that.
NNAMDIWell, back up a little bit and talk about how this decision to veto the bill was presented this morning. As you pointed out, it has been widely expected that this is what the mayor would do, but it took a long time for the council to get the bill to him. He took all of the 10 days that it took to decide to veto it, and then presented it how? How dramatic, or not, was this morning's presentation?
MADDENIt was dramatic in the sense that it was definitely drawn out. Right? So we have the whole two months where this bill was passed by the council, but somehow, you know, couldn't make its way up to the sixth floor. It took two months for that to happen. And then Gray, as you mentioned, took pretty much the 10 days allotted to him. But this morning, basically we were called -- all the reporters were called into the mayor's office. And then we basically were given the news and then had individual sit-down interviews with the mayor. So they were definitely trying to control the message right now.
NNAMDIThere was not a press conference. I should invite phone calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think of the mayor's decision? Do you think the council will override his veto? Give us call, 800-433-8850 or send email to Kojo@wamu.org. The mayor seemed to be pretty vague in calling for a broader increase in the minimum wage. Former city administrator Robert Bob had called on the mayor to veto the bill and immediately introduced one that would mandate an increase to the minimum wage across the board. Did the mayor give any indication that he might take this initiative himself or he's simply calling on the council to do it?
MADDENWhat he told me is that he wanted to work with the council and approve something, but when we pressed him on exactly, you know, what figure would that be, $9, $10, $11, he didn't have that answer. And it's not as simple as just raising the minimum wage because you have to consider Maryland, Virginia, the District's wage right now is basically -- the law says that it's a dollar above what the federal minimum wage is. So it's a little more complicated than just passing a minimum wage bill.
MADDENBut as you mentioned, he was not very definitive in exactly what this means. So one could say this is just sort of helping to provide some political coverage for this decision, in mentioning a minimum wage bill for everyone -- a living wage bill, sorry.
NNAMDIWal-Mart has been considered, if you will, the main target of this bill. What has the act's mere existence or the bill's mere existence meant for the city's relationship with the retailer?
MADDENRight. So a lot of people say, well, this isn't about Wal-Mart, but the fact of the matter is this has everything to do about Wal-Mart because remember, Wal-Mart was the one that issued this ultimatum on the eve of the council's second and final vote on this legislation, that if they pass this living wage bill, they would pull out of three of their stores, and including the Skyline one in the mayor's neighborhood. So this is definitely about Wal-Mart.
MADDENAnd in terms of what this means going forward, the Wal-Mart spokesperson has said all, you know, has basically said we plan to go forward, we hopefully will get all six stores going. And one of the stores, in New York Avenue, still there are some issues with that, but that is not related to this living wage deal. So Wal-Mart says it, you know, as long as the council doesn't override the mayor's veto it plans to go ahead with all six stores.
NNAMDIA number of community groups have been advocating in favor of this bill. Have you been hearing anything about the reaction from those corners, so far?
MADDENIt's been surprisingly muted. At council today there were some people outside -- some of the activist groups, the labor groups, like Our D.C., Respect D.C. They were outside the Wilson Building talking to people, but there hasn't been a sort of major rally or demonstration yet. And part of that could be that the way this was rolled out. There was no notice this morning that this was going to be out there. Reporters were sort of individually called and told to come by at a certain time, and that's when the news would be delivered.
MADDENSo I think that was part of the rationale for that, was to avoid having a big demonstration, but I imagine that as the days go on and the pressure now turns to the council, we're going to hear a lot more from these groups.
NNAMDII know the Rev. Graylan Hagler, who we had on the show before, has indicated that in his view the mayor's office and Wal-Mart have been working together to defeat this bill from the start. Did the mayor say why he pondered this for 10 days when he seemed to be giving out signals from the very beginning that he was opposed to it?
MADDENYou know that's the question that I don't know the answer to. I don't understand why the council took two months to transmit the bill, why the mayor has taken 10 days. What's been said is that, well, we want to give everyone an opportunity to voice their opinion, to air their argument. So that's all we've got on why this has taken so long. But the other rational is that the fact that it has taken this long means that the council will be back in session for this override vote.
NNAMDIHere is Anthony, in Washington, D.C. Anthony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANTHONYYeah. Thanks a lot for taking my call. I mean I think that this whole conversation was kind of fraught with purposeful misunderstandings and opportunism. The old idea that we can take the general hatred that people have for Wal-Mart and use that as, you know, the divider, the pride, better yet, that you can use to, you know, push forward a living wage bill. I mean it seems to dismiss the underlying issue, which is, what was the purpose for a minimum wage? Was it to create the sort of the conditions by which people can create, you know, economic, you know, can support a family?
ANTHONYNo. It was to basically prevent exploitation below the minimum wage. So, you know, I’m all for people making more money, but it doesn't really make any sense for us to target certain corporations and say they will have to pay a level of, you know, a salary that other corporations don't have to pay. So I think really at the face, this issue never really made much sense. And, in fact…
NNAMDIWell, what would you say about -- what would you say if either minimum wage bill or living wage bill was introduced either by the mayor or the council, that would be an across-the-board raise?
ANTHONYWell, you know, I think that that's a whole other conversation and we would have to figure out why would we want to do that, as well. You know, there's a very long history of corporations standing on the periphery of Washington, D.C. and sucking our dollars outside and getting our consumers to travel outside of the District of Columbia, wherein they can profit from us without putting revenues back into the city. So, you know, again, if we create conditions wherein corporations do not want to come here and do not want to pay taxes in the city, I don't think that that's a good thing for anybody.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. This is not necessarily the end, Patrick Madden. You pointed out earlier that the vote in favor of this bill was 8 to 5, that it would take nine votes to overturn this veto. So is there likely to be some politicking going on over the course of the next week or so?
MADDENOh, without a doubt. And right now the attention is focused on Tommy Wells. He was one of the council members that they're trying to -- he's the one that the focus is on to try to make him change his vote and join the override. And it's because he, you know, and he's running for mayor. And a lot of these liberal labor groups are saying, you know, Councilmember Wells, we, you know, you have a long history of sort of being on our side. Won't you join us on this one?
NNAMDIAnd of course, over his other shoulder he's looking at the business community and what they are saying to him about this bill. So obviously Tommy Wells is going to have some deciding to do. Here, finally, is Perry, in Northwest Washington. Perry, you're on the air, go ahead please.
PERRYThanks a lot, Kojo. Listen, I am incensed, I'm enraged, and OMG. The fact of the matter is $12.50 is not a living wage. It still keeps a person at the poverty level. Sadly enough, our council has decided to stand with -- and our mayor, unfortunately -- stand with corporations, as opposed to standing with the working class of the city. And so we must hold Wal-Mart accountable. The gentleman, Anthony, who called earlier, failed to realize that Wal-Mart has a sordid history of not only exploiting workers, but exploiting a community as a whole wherever it goes.
PERRYAnd so this is one of the reasons why many of us stood against Wal-Mart. And then the fact that Wal-Mart held the stores in the predominantly black community hostage, was such an insult to us that I…
NNAMDIOkay. I'm afraid -- Perry, we're just about out of time. Patrick Madden, Perry's comments underscore the notion that this was really a Wal-Mart bill, which some people feel that it was.
MADDENYes. But just to make one correction. The council did approve this bill. You can't say that they weren't behind this.
NNAMDIYes. A majority of the council did approve this bill, but not enough, at this point, to give them the numbers to override the veto. It's a situation, a political fight that we'll be watching over the course of the next week or so and depending on Patrick Madden to keep us up to date. Patrick, thank you so much for joining us.
MADDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIPatrick Madden is a reporter with WAMU 88.5 news. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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