September 15, 2013

'Living wage' loses to Walmart's low prices

The decision by Washington's mayor brings focus to the fact that Walmart's customers are often as economically disadvantaged as those who scrape by on its hourly wages.

By AARON C. DAVIS The Washington Post

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Washington resident Jimmy Pegues, 64, rests on an overturned shopping cart recently after crossing the parking lot of the Walmart store in Landover, Md. The round-trip bus trip from his apartment takes half a day, but Pegues said it is worth it, saving him roughly $110 a month on heart medications and blood thinners through Walmart's $4 generic prescription drug program.

Washington Post photo by Aaron C. Davis

Barring a last-minute change by one of five council members who voted against the measure in July, it appears likely to die during an override attempt on Tuesday, sending Washington the way of most other major U.S. cities including Chicago, which after its own existential moment over Walmart wages in 2006, now has nine of the stores and a 10th under construction.

For his veto, Gray was lambasted by labor leaders and clergy for bowing to corporate interests and Walmart, which had threatened to walk away from at least three of its six planned District of Columbia stores.

But in an interview following the veto, Gray said the city's lack of available and affordable groceries and retail — including at the boarded-up Skyland shopping center, where after pressure from Gray, Walmart would put a store near the mayor's longtime family home — outweighed any urge he had in setting a national precedent.

"One city," said Gray, using his slogan for city unity, "is being able to have reasonable access for people wherever they are, wherever they live, and nobody can make that argument, frankly, about access to some of these amenities. You look of areas of Ward 7 and 8, they are really food deserts, retail deserts."

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a lead sponsor of the bill for many years, still fiercely disagrees that more Walmarts with their low-paying jobs is the answer. Walmarts moving into the District of Columbia are sure to displace local grocers and retailers, he said, and there's no guarantee that Washington residents, and not commuters from Maryland or Virginia, will get the work.

"If the answer is we perpetuate low-wage jobs, we're not helping people," Mendelson said.

Mark Federici, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400, said the decision will reverberate beyond Washington.

"Walmart wants to be in Washington, in the world's most powerful city, so they can say that if their [wages] are OK here, they are OK anywhere," Federici said, as he participated in a protest outside the Landover Walmart this month.

The legislation brought to the fore as strongly as at any time during Gray's nearly three-year tenure the city's fault lines over race, class and opportunity. Rebekah Peeples Massengill, author of "Wal-Mart Wars: Moral Populism in the Twenty-First Century," said she was not surprised the living-wage effort appeared headed for failure.

"For people in underserved areas, Walmart can bring goods that would not otherwise be available, and the trade-offs for what that means for workers at those stores is a very complex moral discussion," she said.

Messengill found in her work that Walmart's low wages have helped perpetuate an economy where people depend on the store's inexpensive goods. But the Princeton University sociologist said its consumer role extends far beyond the poor.

Veronica Harris steered her cherry-red Mercedes C-Class Kompressor near the front of the Landover parking lot on a recent evening. Her shopping list? A toddler-sized Redskins jersey for her nephew. At $24.97, it's cheap enough that when he outgrows it, Harris expects to simply buy another.

The private foster-care consultant also wandered through the aisles of refrigerated goods, past the Horizon organic fat-free milk for $3.98 — $1.01 less than at Whole Foods near Logan Circle in Washington, and past the piles of Chobani yogurt — 40 cents cheaper than at Yes Organic Market on the District of Columbia's 14th Street NW.

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