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D.C. Council Passes Living Wage Bill 8-5; Wal-Mart Nixes 3 Locations

Denise Rolark-Barnes | 7/10/2013, 6:14 p.m.
Wal-Mart had planned to build six stores in the District. Courtesy Photo

The D.C. Council voted 8-5 Wednesday afternoon to pass a controversial act requiring big-box retailers to pay their employees a minimum wage of $12.50 an hour.

Council members were undeterred by warnings from Wal-Mart executives, who told District lawmakers this week that three of the six stores planned for the District would not be built if the legislation passed.

Council Chair Phil Mendelson, who wrote the Large Retailer Accountability Act, acknowledged the "strong rhetoric" among members who argued for more than an hour whether the legislation would benefit District residents or whether it unfairly targeted Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer. But the eight members who voted in favor of the bill in June also did the same Wednesday.

"Large retailers have the economic power to pay this somewhat higher minimum wage and they have the economic power to drive down wages if they don't pay this minimum wage," Mendelson said. "This was not a Wal-Mart bill; it became so because Wal-Mart made it so. Wal-Mart was the only one that has objected to this bill."

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said after the vote that the company would indeed nix plans for store locations at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in Northeast and at the Skyland Town Center and East Capitol Street in Southeast.

"Nothing has changed from our perspective: we will not pursue Skyland, Capitol Gateway, and New York Avenue and will start to review the financial and legal implications on the three stores already under construction," Restivo said. "This was a difficult decision for us — and unfortunate news for most D.C. residents — but the Council has forced our hand."

Construction continues at three other sites at Fort Totten in Northeast, Georgia and Missouri Avenues in Northwest and 1st and H Streets in Northwest.

Business leaders are ecstatic about the stores generating thousands of jobs for District residents and tens of millions in revenue for the District. However, union leaders and progressive activists are concerned about Wal-Mart's reputation for decimating small businesses, its history of racial and sexual discrimination and the fact that some of its goods are produced in China under slave labor conditions.

Barbara B. Lang, president of the city's chamber of commerce, said she was "extremely disappointed" with the Council's decision.

"This sends a clear message to other businesses that may be considering development projects in the District of Columbia that they are not welcomed," Lang said. "Not only is the passage of this bill irresponsible, but it shows a lack of vision on the Council for how to strengthen the District's workforce and bring further economic development to the District."

The Skyland Town Center is located in Ward 7, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the District, along with Ward 8.

Ward 7 Council member Yvette Alexander, voted against the legislation, arguing that it was "not a living wage bill."

"As was my worst nightmare, a Wal-Mart representative came into my office yesterday and said they will not build or no continue any development that has not been started," she said. "Two of those Wal-Mart stores are in my ward. I believe this bill is a development killer and a jobs killer. Wal-Mart is not bluffing.

"Am I begging Wal-Mart to come to D.C.? No," Alexander said. "Are my constituents excited about the retail coming, and the retail options? Yes. This bill will destroy our plans. If it applied to all retail, which it does not, it would make sense. This is just an anti-Wal-Mart piece of legislation."

But council members who voted for the bill were encouraged to "stay strong" by at-large member Vincent Orange.

"We've got eight votes," he said. "Eight votes are fine for the headlines today and tomorrow. Don't fall for the okey-doke. Citizens of the District of Columbia demand that we stand up for them."

If Gray vetoes the bill, it will take nine votes to override him.