The world’s largest retailer delivered an ultimatum to District lawmakers Tuesday, telling them less than 24 hours before a decisive vote that at least three planned Wal-Marts will not open in the city should a super-minimum-wage proposal become law.
A team of Wal-Mart officials and lobbyists, including a high-level executive from the mega-retailer’s Arkansas headquarters, walked the halls of the John A. Wilson Building on Tuesday afternoon, delivering the news to D.C. Council members.
The company’s hardball tactics come out of a well-worn playbook that involves successfully using Wal-Mart’s leverage in the form of jobs and low-priced goods to fend off legislation and regulation that could cut into its profits and set precedent in other potential markets. In the Wilson Building, elected officials have found their reliable liberal, pro-union political sentiments in conflict with their desire to bring amenities to underserved neighborhoods.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) called Wal-Mart’s move “immensely discouraging,” indicating that he may consider vetoing the bill while pondering whether to seek reelection.
The D.C. Council bill would require retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger to pay their employees no less than $12.50 an hour. The District’s minimum wage is $8.25.
While the law would apply to some retailers in the city — such as Home Depot, Costco and Macy’s — a grandfather period and an exception for retailers with unionized workforces made it clear that the bill is aimed at Wal-Mart, which has said it would open six stores in the near future.
Alex Barron, a regional general manager for Wal-Mart U.S., wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece that the proposed wage requirement “would clearly inject unforeseen costs into the equation that will create an uneven playing field and challenge the fiscal health of our planned D.C. stores.”
As a result, Barron said, the company “will not pursue” stores at three locations where construction has yet to begin — two in Ward 7 and one in Ward 5. He added that the legislation, if passed, will also jeopardize the three stores underway, pending a review of the “financial and legal implications.” While precise terms of its agreements with developers are not known, the company’s leases could be difficult to break without significant financial penalties.
Wal-Mart’s decision echoes the retailer’s first incursion into an American urban center seven years ago, when the Chicago City Council passed a similar “living-wage” measure. The company indicated then that the law would cause it to scale back or entirely scrap its plans to open several stores, Mayor Richard M. Daley vetoed the bill, and the council by a narrow margin failed to override it. In March, New York increased its minimum wage only after a compromise offered tax subsidies to companies such as Wal-Mart that hire seasonal workers.
Ken Jacobs, chairman of the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, who has investigated Wal-Mart’s wage policies, said the company has opposed living-wage laws and other measures that target the company’s business practices, particularly in urban markets.
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