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Walmart has been stepping up its public relations game as it tries to persuade Mayor Vince Gray to veto the controversial living wage bill passed by the D.C. Council last week, supplementing its regular press releases with a petition and an ever-so-slightly leading poll on the issue.
But now, the clergy are striking back. This morning, a group of ministers is gathering at Ward 7’s Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church to urge the mayor to sign the bill—-despite mounting evidence that he may be considering a veto.
Walmart has threatened to cancel plans for its three D.C. stores that have not yet begun construction if the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013—-which would require stores larger than 75,000 square feet with parent companies grossing at least $1 billion per year to pay at least $12.50 an hour, minus benefits—-becomes law. One of those stores is at the planned Skyland Town Center, a project dear to Gray, and one where he insisted on a Walmart store if the company wanted to open others in the city.
But Rev. Graylan Hagler, a pastor at the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ and the leader of today’s rally, believes it would be a mistake to cave to Walmart’s threat.
“Remember this: First of all, Walmart did not want to come into Skyland or into what is considered the black wards of the city,” Hagler says. “They went into tracts that had changing demographics or major commuter routes. It is still race economics, whether we like it or not.” Hagler argues that if Walmart really wanted to open stores in the eastern part of the city, it wouldn’t have begun with its three westernmost stores.
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander and others have worried that a Walmart pullout from its three east-of-the-Anacostia-River stores would mean a loss of jobs in the parts of the city that need them most. But Hagler says it’s not unreasonable to ask highly profitable companies to do more to help the city’s poor.
“We’re not against jobs,” he says. “But the reality is, poor people are being pushed out of this city. So my perspective is a biblical perspective, where I’m taught, to whom much has been given, much is required.”
Hagler repeats a claim he’s made before: that Walmart representatives promised a group of clergy that they’d pay a starting wage of $13 an hour at their stores in D.C. But Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo denies that promise was ever made.
“My best guess is, [the Walmart representative in question] was sharing our average wage,” Restivo says, “and I think a lot of people were struggling with the difference between starting and average.”
Hagler used to serve as chaplain to a local union, and a different union—-United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents Giant and Safeway, two Walmart competitors that are exempt from the living wage bill because they have collective bargaining agreements—-has been issuing the press releases for today’s event. I ask Hagler if he might be influenced by his association with these unions.
“I would say you’re probably right,” he says. “I’m not denying it. It’s an issue of economic justice.” A Safeway spokesman recently told me he was unable to disclose the company’s starting wage, but Hagler says that from his experience with the supermarkets, he’s certain that when you factor in benefits, the starting wages there come to more than $12.50 an hour. And he notes that Costco, another Walmart competitor that recently opened a store in D.C., pays around $11 an hour plus benefits, which he says puts it over the $12.50 threshold as well.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery