September 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm EDT | by Lateefah Williams
D.C. residents a pawn in Walmart’s chess match
Walmart, gay news, Washington Blade

LRAA is not perfect legislation, but sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good, and the LRAA is a very good step in the right direction. (Photo by Bobby P.; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

D.C. has long been a city with massive wealth disparities and those disparities only seem to be getting worse. What is different today, however, is that city officials seem to be catering to corporate interests over vulnerable residents more than ever.

I can understand why Mayor Gray and the D.C. Council’s decision over whether to support the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), which would require businesses that are more than 75,000 square feet and have more than $1 billion in sales to pay a minimum wage of at least $12.50 an hour, was difficult. On one hand, if the legislation passes, it would ensure that Walmart, the wealthiest corporation in the world, pays its employees something approaching a living wage rather than the poverty wages it is known for. The legislation also applies to a few corporations other than Walmart, but let’s be real, this is mostly about Walmart.

On the other hand, if LRAA passes, Walmart is threatening not to build the two planned stores east of the river and the one in Ward 5, which are slated to be built in communities where retail is needed most. Mayor Gray succumbed to Walmart’s threats and vetoed the legislation.  Just enough Council members appear to have followed suit to prevent overriding his veto.

Many people who oppose Walmart because of its abhorrent labor practices softened their stance solely because much-needed retail was going to underserved communities.  Although I am one of those who oppose Walmart, the argument that vetoing LRAA may delay development at Skyland Town Center in Ward 7 for a generation did give me pause.

Then it hit me.  We would not even be having this debate if Walmart built the first D.C. stores at Skyland Town Center and Capital Gateway, both in Ward 7, instead of in Northwest. Walmart’s leverage is based on the fear that it is those communities’ only hope to get major retail. I guarantee you that if the stores currently under construction were the two in Ward 7, the LRAA vote would not have even been close. It would have passed the Council by a veto-proof margin and Mayor Gray would have signed it. So, we are mere pawns in Queen Walmart’s chess match because city officials failed to request that Walmart build the Ward 7 stores first and now Walmart has backed the city into a corner.

Eric Jones, a local political operative, sees the situation differently.  “The reason the East of the River projects have not been started is not because of Walmart. There are other things that need to be done prior to Walmart coming to these locations, but if Walmart doesn’t come to these locations, the projects won’t get off the ground,” Jones said.

If that is the case, Walmart sure did not spend any time explaining why it did not build the East of the River stores first during its massive public relations blitz. Then again, it did not have to. Our city officials were too busy allowing Walmart to make the first move and then reacting to Walmart’s moves.

Some of the criticism, such as that the living wage jobs will not necessarily go to D.C. residents are potentially valid, but if the contention is that the major benefit of Walmart coming to D.C. is for residents who lack access to retail to have retail in their community, with lesser regard to the jobs aspect, then it makes even less sense that the city did not push Walmart to build the East of the River stores first.

Ask yourself this question: If Walmart had begun construction on the stores at Skyland Town Center and Capital Gateway, then threatened not to build the remaining stores, would you support the $12.50 minimum wage, knowing that Walmart is already coming to the communities that need it most?  If your answer is yes, then you have your answer about whether you should support the LRAA.

Walmart disregarded the District’s needs when it chose to build the three Northwest stores first and city officials let retail-starved communities down when they did not insist that the first stores be built East of the River. Walmart should not be rewarded for choosing to build in Northwest and then conveniently using LRAA as an excuse not to build stores in the communities where they are needed most.  I will concede that the LRAA is not perfect legislation, but sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good, and the LRAA is a very good step in the right direction.

Lateefah Williams’ column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is the immediate past president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her at twitter @lateefahwms.

  • I don't understand the argument that since retail jobs paying a living wage may not go to D.C. residents, retail corporations doing business here shouldn't be obliged to pay its employees a living wage. One of the outspoken supporters of the LRAA over the past couple of months is a Macy's employee who is a lifelong resident of Ward 7. She manages to leave her ward to go to work at a Large Retailer! Yesterday, at the noon pro-LRAA rally, one of the speakers was an OUR Walmart activist who lives in Ward 8 and works at the Walmart in Capital Plaza, Maryland. While only two instances, they demonstrates that there are endless permutations of residence and workplace that cannot be accurately predicted, and that using some imagined outcomes as the grounds for creating public policy is a fool's errand.

  • Very good point, Lateefah, that our elected officials fail to use their leverage with businesses to maximize benefits to DC residents. I think you’ve added a valuable piece of analysis. However, I disagree that LRAA is about Walmart. It’s about whether the richest corporations in the world should be allowed to make their mind-bending profits by exploiting low-income workers.

  • UPDATE to Lateefah Williams' opinion piece: the DC Council has now sustained Mayor Gray's veto of this Big Retail Wage Hike bill. Supporters of the proposed mandate needed 9 votes to override, requiring a "pick-up" of 1 vote. However, they lost the previous support of Councilmember Anita Bonds, putting them further "down" in the vote count. I offered a different perspective on why the now-confirmed defeat of this bill is a good thing, in July following the bill's passage in my weekly Blade column:

  • Please disclose your facts as to how Walmart is the “wealthiest corporation in the world.” You are a biased hack!

  • Tim, there is no reason to resort to name calling because you don’t like the facts. The sentence I wrote mentioning that Walmart is the “wealthiest corporation in the world” has a link attached to that phrase. If you had bothered to click on it, you would have seen that it directs you to the Fortune 500 list, where Walmart holds the top spot for revenue earned.

  • Corporations are not philanthropic organizations, they have and always will act in a manner that best suits their needs and drives share price. Sometimes social good flows from that, but it is a by-product of the intended goal, never the goal in itself. There is very little shame that is too big for them to bear in search of profits.

  • Skyland was not ready to be built because the city was still tied up in eminent domain lawsuits over the property.

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