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The D.C. Council passed its contentious living wage bill by an 8-5 vote this afternoon, reaffirming its initial vote by the same margin last month and defying Walmart’s threats that the store will cancel plans for half of its D.C. stores if the bill becomes law.
If signed by Mayor Vince Gray, the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013 would require retailers in excess of 75,000 square feet with parent companies grossing at least $1 billion per year to pay a living wage of $12.50 an hour, minus benefits—-with an exemption for companies with collective bargaining agreements.
The bill became more contentious yesterday when Walmart announced it would pull out of three of its six planned stores in the District and reconsider the others if the bill is enacted. That announcement led Gray to issue a statement “urg[ing] the Council to consider whether this legislation will actually promote strong economic development in the District and expand job opportunities for District residents.”
Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander said before the vote that the loss of two Walmart stores in her ward was her “worst nightmare” and reiterated her opposition to the bill. But other councilmembers decried Walmart’s threat to withdraw. “You’re not gonna put a gun to my head,” said At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, urging his councilmembers to “stay strong” and support the measure. Orange suggested that if Walmart pulls out of its New York Avenue NE location, the city could put a sound stage or amusement park in its place.
“I don’t believe Walmart at this point, that they’re gonna leave the District,” said Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry. “That’s a stickup. And we’re not gonna be stuck up.”
Even Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who voted against the bill both times, expressed her disappointment in Walmart’s threat. “Their behavior, their playing hardball and threatening to pull out and all of that, that almost drove me to a different vote, because I don’t like being threatened,” she said.
But Gray’s skepticism toward the bill—-and his support of the Skyland Town Center project, where he insisted Walmart set up a store and where Walmart’s threatening to leave—-could signal a veto of the measure. Overriding a veto would require nine votes; today’s vote indicates the Council would fall short of that total.
At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who voted against the measure, introduced an amendment to delay the implementation of the law and exempt stores that had certificates of occupancy before July 2014. Catania said he would support the overall bill and provide a veto-proof majority if his amendment was adopted, but it failed on a 10-3 vote.
Update 5:18 p.m.: Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo says in a statement that Walmart stands by its pledge not to open three of its stores if the bill becomes law. “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,” he says. “This was a difficult decision for us—-and unfortunate news for most D.C. residents—-but the Council has forced our hand.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery