DC City Council strikes down a living wage at America’s largest private employer, despite public’s support for $12.50/hour wage.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Last week, Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed a living-wage bill that had been passed by the city council in July. The Large Retailer Accountability Act requires retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more operating in D.C. locations of at least 75,000 square feet to pay their employers no less than $12.15 an hour.
Now joining us to discuss the D.C. city council vote that took place on Tuesday is Mark Brenner, who is the director of Labor Notes.
Thanks for being with us, Mark.
MARK BRENNER, DIRECTOR, LABOR NOTES: Great to be here, Jessica. Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So, Mark, in July the D.C. city council passed the living-wage bill. Essentially they got eight votes. But in order to pass it this time around, they need nine. Do you anticipate them being able to muster up enough support to get this passed?
BRENNER: Quite the opposite. I think all the, you know, speculation is in the other direction, that they’re going to actually lose some support and that some of the people who voted in favor the first time are going to peel off in the veto override vote that’s taking place. So, you know, all indications are that this is going to fail and that Vincent Gray is going to prevail, he’s going to—you know, his override will stick.
DESVARIEUX: And if this fails, what will the repercussions be, especially for everyday people?
BRENNER: Well, I think it says two things. Number one, it really, you know, continues a disturbing trend that I think we’ve seen in other cities, Chicago most notably, where big retailers, particularly Walmart, are throwing their weight around and continue to be able to muscle the politicians at the local level into, you know, kind of a development policy that fits with their corporate agenda. So that, of course, you know, just signals more corporate control of our political system, which is a bad thing for everyday folks.
And, of course, the people who would have benefited from this—you know, Walmart is the largest corporation in the country. They’re the second-largest corporation in the world. They make over half a trillion dollars in sales every year. They made over—almost $60 billion in profits last year. This is a company that has—you know, they’re swimming in money, and they’re keeping it mostly for themselves. I mean, it’s no surprise that the Walmart heirs are, you know, three or four of the top ten richest people in the country. And this is really just another indication of the sort of 1 percent versus the 99 percent, a company that doesn’t even pretend that it can’t afford to pay $12.50 an hour. It just says, we don’t have to, and we’re going to use our political muscle to make sure that that stays true.
DESVARIEUX: And then what do you make of that argument that consumers at the end of the day will be paying more if Walmart were to pay its workers a living wage? What do you make of that?
BRENNER: Well, it’s interesting you brought that up, Jessica, because this is something that in another life when I was a researcher at the University of Massachusetts we spent a lot of time looking at, what would be the impact on consumers of living-wage ordinances, particularly for, you know, retail employers like this.
And there was a study about two years ago looking at this question about Walmart nationally, like, what would actually happen if Walmart were forced to pay $12 an hour to all of their workforce, their national workforce. First thing that we found in this study was that it would benefit a whole lot of people. There’s almost 900,000 workers that work for Walmart and make less than $12 an hour, and it would raise wages by almost $3.2 billion, which sounds like a huge number, right, $3.2 billion. First we’ve got to point out that it’s less than a quarter of Walmart’s profits for last year. It’s actually less than 20 percent of their profits, which were close to $16 billion. But even more important for consumers, it only adds up to about 1.1 percent of all the sales that the company recorded. So on average, raising wages to about $12 an hour at Walmart would really only raise costs by about $0.45 per shopping trip for Walmart customers.
So, you know, it’s one of those situations, as we see with living-wage ordinances generally, where the benefits are very concentrated, the costs are very dispersed. So it’s really kind of a win-win. Unfortunately, as we said before, politically Walmart is making sure that this is not going to happen.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. And we should note that the D.C. public seems to be in favor of this living-wage bill. There was a survey recently that came out done by the Hart Research Associates. They found that 58 percent of city residents supported an override of Gray’s veto, while only 35 percent thought the veto should stand. So, Mark, there are those that argue still that this bill is really more about trying to harm Walmart than really giving people a living wage, and some are even arguing that competitors like Giant and Target, Safeway, and employers like that should be paying that living wage as well and the focus should really be on raising the minimum wage across the board. What do you make of that?
BRENNER: Well, they’re not mutually exclusive, of course, Jessica. I’m all in favor of raising the city minimum wage. I know city counselor Tommy Wells has actually suggested raising the minimum wage to $10.25 in the district. And I think that that couldn’t happen fast enough. I mean, frankly, I’ve been involved in the living-wage movement since the mid-1990s. You know. And after 15 years, I hate to say that that we’re still talking about, you know, $8, $9, $10 an hour. It’s really unbelievable that we’ve been working on this for so long and we’re still asking for so little. So I think, you know, the faster we can get up to something closer to $15 or $20 an hour, which is what it really would cost, you know, what you’d really have to pay someone to actually afford to live in the district above the poverty line, you know, and in any kind of reasonable what you would call, like, living-wage job. That’s what it would take. So I’m all in favor of raising the city-wide minimum wage.
But I did want to say, in terms of is this really just a sort of, you know, punish Walmart kind of city council ordinance, I disagree. I think that the standards are very transparent. We’re going after big box retailers. I mean, these are some of the biggest companies in the country, in the world. They’ve made, you know, outsized profits off of us, the consumer, for years and years and years, and they’re putting very little back into their workforce. So it’s about time that they, you know, did their share.
And I think that as far as local businesses that are already, you know, above the sales threshold and above the square footage threshold, they’re going to be affected by this too. They just have a longer phase-in period, about four years.
But what nobody likes to talk about is the fact that a lot of these companies may not actually have to pay any more at all, because they’re already unionized, you know, which is true of a lot of grocery stores, not so much retail. And this is really just about in some ways leveling the playing field between those companies which have already, you know, sort of figured out that you can run a successful business and pay people a living wage, and companies like Walmart could say, oh, you can actually make a lot more in profits by, you know, going the low road and paying people $8.25 an hour.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Mark.
BRENNER: Great to be here, Jessica. Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.