News & Politics

Supporters of “Living Wage” Bill Prepare for DC Mayor’s Decision

With Mayor Vince Gray finally set to receive what many refer to as the "Walmart bill," its supporters are ratcheting up their calls for his signature.

Photograph via vvoe /

It’s been seven weeks since the DC Council passed a bill that would force Walmart and other big-box retailers to pay their employees a “living wage” of at least $12.50 an hour, but only yesterday did Council Chairman Phil Mendelson say that he finally plans to send the legislation to Mayor Vince Gray on Friday.

In the nearly 50 days since the Council’s vote, Mendelson has been repeatedly questioned when he plans to submit the bill for the mayor’s approval or veto, Gray has dodged queries about whether he intends to sign it, and Walmart has restlessly bombarded reporters’ email accounts with press releases. (There are, however, plenty of signs that Gray is leaning toward a veto.)

But at a rally in support of the Large Retailer Accountability Act at the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church in Southeast DC last night, Mendelson explained why he’s been dallying to send the bill over—to leverage more support for it.

“The short answer is he’ll get the bill when I’m ready to give it to him,” Mendelson said to loud applause. “That’s 48 days of pressuring the mayor.”

When the bill passed the Council by an 8-5 vote on July 10, Walmart announced it would pull out of three of six planned sites across DC. Six additional retail chains announced that they, too, will reconsider expanding their presences in the District if the bill becomes law.

The rally, which at times—considering the setting—resembled more of a revivalist sermon, was organized by Council member Vincent Orange, who has couched his support for the bill in a belief that retailers like Walmart will naturally flock to the DC neighborhoods where the stores are planned. Throughout the evening, Orange, Mendelson, and other speakers repeatedly invoked the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., hitting on that the 1963 March on Washington was one “for Jobs and Freedom.”

“A courageous announcement by Mayor Gray would address [King’s] unfulfilled dream that ‘a living wage should be the right of all working Americans,” Orange said.

After a great deal of haggling with city officials when it wanted to enter the DC market, Walmart set about a plan to open six stores throughout the city. Construction is underway on three of them, located on H St., NE, North Capitol St., and Georgia Ave., NW. But of the locations that Walmart has pledged to ax, two are located in Ward 7, where Gray lives, and where last night’s event took place. Mentions from the lectern of Ward 7’s Council member, Yvette Alexander, one of the strongest opponents of the living wage bill, drew jeers from the pews. Alexander was not in attendance last night.

Labor organizers and other activists touted their ability to marshal support for the bill in the seven weeks since it went through the Council, claiming to have sent about 35,000 phone calls, emails, and petition signatures to Gray’s office.

Even with the bill, a $12.50 hourly wage does not offer anyone great shakes in a DC where the cost of living continues to increase. Carried out over a 40-hour work week, the rate translates into about $26,000 per year, not too far from the local poverty line. But even a small wage increase can translate into a large economic boost, said Peter Davis, an activist with Ralph Nader’s Center for the Study of Responsive Law. In his remarks, Davis pointed to an analysis by the Chicago Federal Reserve stating that a low-wage worker who receives an additional $1 an hour can create $2,800 in new consumer spending over the course of a year.

Numerous speakers last night also mentioned the difference in compensation received by an average Walmart employee and members of the Walton family, which controls the world’s largest retailer. The Rev. Graylan Hagler, in a long and blistering sermon that closed out the rally, said the gap between Walmart’s workers and it executives “is a sin by anyone’s paradigm.”

Still, while Gray has hedged publicly about what he intends to do when he finally gets the bill on Friday, his comments when the legislation appeared strongly hint toward a veto. “I appreciate the Council’s efforts to ensure that salaries in the District are high enough to secure a resident’s future, but I believe this bill’s inherent drawbacks must be addressed prior to the Council giving its approval,” he wrote in a June 26 letter to the Council.

As the wait between the Council’s vote on the bill and when it hits the mayor’s desk has dragged on, both Mendelson and Gray have been increasingly agitated when asked for an update. At a press conference last week, Gray told reporters he intends to take action quickly after he receives the living wage bill.

But that does not mean that if Mendelson submits the bill on Friday morning Gray will offer his answer by that afternoon.

“I anticipate relatively quick action,” Gray’s spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says. But Ribeiro suggested that with a holiday weekend approaching—Labor Day, no less—the clerks and other staff required for legislative action might not be around for a few days.

“Hell, it took 50 days for Mendelson to send it over,” Ribeiro says.

If, as many assume, Gray vetoes the bill, Mendelson says DC will not have to wait terribly long for the Council to attempt to override such a decision. Mendelson told Washingtonian that the vote, which would need only one more supporter to pass, would be scheduled for Sept. 17, the Council’s second day back from its summer recess.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.