DC City Council Upholds Mayor Gray’s Veto of “Living Wage” Bill

In a rowdy scene on Tuesday, the council voted 7-6 not to override the veto.

By: Benjamin Freed

The DC City Council chamber erupted into chaos when legislators voted to uphold Mayor Vince Gray’s veto of a bill that would have required certain large retail stores to pay a starting hourly wage of $12.50 an hour.

The Large Retailer Accountability Act, or “living wage” bill, as its supporters called it, made its way through the Council this year largely as a response to Walmart’s plans to build six stores in the District, the first of which is scheduled to open later this year. Given Walmart’s national reputation for paying low wages, the bill’s backers wanted to require it and other big-box stores to pay employees more than 50 percent above the District’s minimum wage of $8.25 an hour.

But some District officials, including Gray, were very involved in getting Walmart to commit to opening so many stores here and opposed the Large Retailer Act. Technically, the bill would have applied to all stores at least 75,000 square feet in size and owned by a company that grosses at least $1 billion in sales revenue, with certain exceptions for stores where employees are unionized.

The Council approved the bill by an 8-5 vote on July 10, much to the delight of its backers in the organized labor and progressive activist communities. It was nearly another two months until the Council finally submitted the bill to Gray, who vetoed it a week later to set up the final vote. It would have taken only two additional votes to strike down Gray’s veto.

The deliberation before the override vote was one of the rowdiest scenes the council has witnessed.

“We’ve been had, and it’s time to stand up,” said council member Vincent Orange, who was the bill’s most vocal backer. Orange read off Walmart’s starting wages in Avon, Colorado, near Vail ($12 per hour), and Albuquerque, New Mexico ($10.50 per hour). Neither of those states have so-called “living wage” laws. But Orange’s continued speech suggested that Walmart will pay at or close to the minimum wage in DC.

Walmart says it will pay a competitive wage. In DC, the average wage for a retail salesperson is more than $13 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Orange’s statements prompted loud cheers from the scores of activists who packed the chamber, prompting council chairman Phil Mendelson, another supporter, to issue a warning.

Council member Muriel Bowser, who represents Ward 4 and is also running for mayor next year, stuck by her opposition to the bill. Walmart is also planning to build two stores in her ward.

Another wave of cheers broke out when Bowser mistakenly said she would vote to override Gray’s veto, but she quickly corrected herself, and the cacophony reversed into a chorus of jeers. Bowser’s statement was also followed by one activist standing up to yell toward the dais.

“I wanted to get tossed out. Why not? I want them to hear,” the protester, Southeast DC resident Harold Foster, told Washingtonian after getting escorted from the chamber. “Tell them to start growing some cotton fields. We might as well do that for $8 an hour.”

“We applaud those council members who rejected pressure from special interest groups to do the right thing by their constituents,” Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo said in a statement from the clearly pleased retailer. “We look forward to being part of the solution in communities across DC, especially in areas east of the river that have been traditionally overlooked by major retailers, when it comes to creating jobs, economic development opportunities and more affordable shopping options in Washington, DC.”

In total, Walmart expects its six planned stores will create nearly 2,000 construction and permanent jobs.

But the afternoon’s mood turned to full outrage when the council finally voted, as expected, to uphold the veto. Jeers and chants poured out as scores of sign-toting demonstrators filed past city legislators. Many chanted, “Recall!” toward the members who opposed the bill, and a few flung obscenities back at the dais.

“They’re not leaders,” Reverend Graylan Hagler, a minister who was one of the leaders of the living wage push, said after leading the crowd outside. “They’re servants. Not of us, of big business.”

But, he claimed, the Large Retailer Act’s supporters “won this debate.” Earlier in the day, the council introduced a bill that would raise the District’s minimum wage to $10.25 an hour over a two-year period.