News & Politics

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.

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,

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.

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.