Anyone concerned with the state of participatory democracy in America would do well to tune into the ongoing D.C. Council hearing on the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013, better known as the Walmart living wage bill. The measure, which would require retailers that bring in at least $1 billion a year and have a D.C. store of more than 75,000 square feet to pay a minimum wage of $11.75 an hour, inspires passionate reactions, which are on full display at today’s hearing.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced the bill in January, and every councilmember but Ward 5’s Kenyan McDuffie signed on as a co-sponsor. But as Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser made clear today, that initial backing doesn’t imply passage. “I lent my support early on just so we could be here in this meeting,” she said.
And what a meeting it’s been. The Walmart-backed group Don’t Block D.C. Progress planned to bring people to the hearing, as did the anti-Walmart group Respect D.C. From the start, hecklers interrupted the hearing frequently, with at least two being escorted out, while others left voluntarily. Committee chairman Vincent Orange repeatedly had to intervene to remind people to remain quiet.
Several witnesses and councilmembers made sure to point out that this bill applies to more stores than just Walmart, but it was clear that the Arkansas-based retailer, which the AFL-CIO’s Joslyn Williams in his testimony called the “poster child of employers who exploit their employees,” was at the forefront of the debate. Walmart is planning to open six stores in the District, including two this year, and has generated strong opposition among some community leaders.
The first panel of witnesses represented the business community and was powerfully opposed to the bill. D.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Lang called the measure “further proof to business that the District is not interested in changing its unfriendly business ways.” Lang noted that similar measures have been introduced in the past, and said “there is a reason this bill has never gained traction.” Debra Yogodzinski of the D.C. Building Industry Association expressed concern that the bill would exacerbate the city’s “retail leakage,” whereby District residents spend their shopping dollars in the suburbs. Former At-Large Councilmember John Ray called the bill discriminatory for arbitrarily singling out stores above a certain size and expressed doubt that it would hold up in court.
Mendelson countered that “there’s nothing unique about this bill,” given that the government has stepped in to impose minimum wages, safety regulations, and health insurance requirements. (Ari Weisbard of the DC Employment Justice Center added that sick leave requirements are already higher for large employers than for small ones in the city.) Mendelson also took strong issue with Lang’s assertion that the bill would hurt small businesses by forcing them to raise their wages to remain competitive, noting that the high unemployment rate and people’s desire to work in a “human” environment will ensure it’s not difficult for small shops to hire.
A central point of contention was whether it was right to impose the new wage on just stores over 75,000 square feet. Orange asked several witnesses if it might not make sense to include businesses like Apple and McDonald’s, which bring in huge profits but generally have smaller stores. Ed Lazere of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute responded that “by the logic that large corporations have the best capacity to absorb wage increases, I think there’s a strong logic to saying that the bill doesn’t only need to apply to retailers above a certain square footage.” But he added that if it’s applied more broadly, it might make sense to lower the minimum wage required.
The debate is sure to remain intense. Watch the live stream here.