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Upon further examination of the legislation proposed by Councilmember Phil Mendelson yesterday intended to force new big box stores to pay living wages and negotiate community benefits agreements, it’s worth pointing out that these might not run into objections only from Walmart and its lobbying heavyweights. Eventually, both laws would apply to the Targets, Giants, and Safeways of the world as well—none of which negotiate CBAs or pay a living wage to starting employees.
The first piece, essentially a rehash of a similar bill from 2007, would require all retailers over 75,000 square feet and grossing over $1 billion per year to pay a base rate of $11.75 per hour, though the employer may pay up to $2.00 less than that for the a new hire’s first 90 days on the job. It also contains certain protections for worker organizing, and would not preclude collective bargaining at stores that have unions.
In his community meeting spiel, Walmart spokesman Keith Morris usually points out that the four new stores will be paying “competitive” wages—no more and no less than the $8.75 or so that starting employees get at Safeway and Giant. Activists counter that Walmart has already pushed the bar lower at its stores ringing the District, and as the world’s biggest retailer, ought to set a higher standard that other grocery stores will rise to meet. So even though Safeway and Giant might object to a new law that will cost them more money, there’s something to be said for a law that covers everybody, eliminating the competitive disadvantage of paying higher wages.
Same goes for the bill requiring community benefits agreements to be signed by any retailer obtaining or renewing a basic business license, which happens every two years. Community benefits agreements usually cover things like education programs, funding for local parks, and infrastructure improvements. I tend to view grocery stores as community benefits in themselves, so I don’t really see the case for this bill. Traditional Walmarts, of course, are different than most grocery stores, driving local businesses that offer the same goods out of the market. But these aren’t traditional Walmarts, and so the distinction is less stark.
Another thing worth considering is that D.C. already has a supermarket tax exemption, and last year passed legislation that will help tailor it to food deserts. So even though Mendelson’s legislation is a barrier to new retailers locating in the District, the Council still provides incentives for them to do so.