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The Problem With Living Wage Bills Aimed at Walmart

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray just vetoed a measure that would have effectively established two very different minimum wages in the city.


Washington, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray finally vetoed this morning a "living wage" bill passed earlier this summer by the city council aimed squarely at Walmart. The bill would have effectively required a higher minimum wage ($12.50 an hour) for employees of the big-box store than nearly everyone else who works in retail in the city can expect ($8.25). The idea had been to extract some benefits from the company not known for its great labor practices as it tries to expand for the first time into the nation's capital.

The tactic has now suffered multiple defeats. A similar version of this same legislation was passed in Chicago in 2006. But it was vetoed there, too, by then-Mayor Richard Daley, also following pressure from the store. If the legislation was going to take hold anywhere, overwhelmingly liberal Washington was probably it. Now, unless the city council overrides the mayor's veto (an unlikely event requiring at least one council member to change his or her mind), the strategy looks effectively dead.

All along, though, it suffered from a central flaw: In trying to fight for would-be Walmart workers, the bill instead drew attention to the fact that the city wasn't trying to raise the minimum wage for everyone. If $12.50 was the new "living wage" at Walmart, what would that make $8.25 an hour everywhere else?

For one thing, that rate is considerably lower than city-wide minimum wages elsewhere in the country. Minimum wage in San Jose is now $10 an hour and pegged to inflation. In San Francisco, it's $10.55. Seattle will vote this fall on a $15 minimum wage.

The language in the D.C. legislation focused on large retailers with stores of larger than 75,000 square feet and annual sales of more than a billion dollars. That definition would have also roped in other retail outlets like Costco and Home Depot (Walmart's wages, though, are among the lowest in retail, meaning the bill would have had the greatest effect there). But the total number of effected workers would have been small, a fact Gray cited in rejecting the bill:

He also made this promise:

Top image of Walmart workers protesting for better pay on Sept. 5 in Miami: Joe Skipper/Reuters.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.