D.C. Walmart Wages: What Political Courage Looks Like in 2013

Fifty-seven years ago, a young U.S. senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy published a book about political courage. He highlighted eight Profiles in Courage of American politicians who had bucked their political instincts to get reelected, raise funds, and tow the party line in favor of protecting a greater, public interest. That young author wrote, in words that still ring true today, "In whatever arena of life one may meet the challenge of courage, whatever may be the sacrifices he faces if he follows his conscience... each man must decide for himself the course he will follow."

While President Kennedy's wisdom about political courage in 1956 has yet to be widely adopted in 2013, the D.C. City Council's recent wage battle with Walmart offers a glimmer of hope. Usually, when a large corporation like Walmart wants to move into a city struggling with unemployment, claiming it wants to revitalize the local economy, politicians are tripping over each other with comically large scissors and red ribbons in hand for the grand opening. But some members of the D.C. City Council have decided to take a very different — and I would argue more courageous — path. 

It began earlier this year when Walmart released plans to build six stores in D.C., a city struggling with 8.3% unemployment, saying it would create an estimated 1,800 jobs. The caveat: Even though other big-box retailers like Costco insist on paying their workers more than $15/hour on average, Walmart would pay many of its D.C. employees at minimum wage, or $8.25/hour. Further, unlike Costco which provides health insurance to nearly all of its employees, Walmart would force taxpayers to foot their employees' medical bills through Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). In fact, Walmart's failure to provide health insurance to its workers costs taxpayers a pretty penny: according to one study, more than $1.7 billion per store, or $5,815 per worker in a 300-person store, because of passed-on costs to Medicaid.

For these reasons, the D.C. City Council opposed Walmart's proposal, passing a "living wage" law that requires big-box retailers to pay at least $12.50/hour. Of course, the $447 billion company wasn't happy, arguing that they couldn't afford to raise their "everyday low prices" by $0.46 and in turn increase their workers' annual income (before taxes) by as much as $6,500 per person. While the bill awaits Mayor Vincent Gray's signature or veto, Walmart has said it will leave D.C. if the living wage bill becomes law. 

D.C. isn't the first municipality to oppose Walmart and the mayor may still cave to Walmart's antics. But the City Council's vote matters, in part because it suggests that powerful corporate interests need not always prevail over the public good. In a city where full-time minimum wage workers make just $15,000 per year — or $55,000 less than what's required to live securely in our nation's capital — one would hope that D.C.'s elected officials would speak on behalf of the people, not the corporations, who elected them. After all, our nation still desperately needs leaders who, in President Kennedy's words, "reward courage, respect honor and ultimately recognize right.” 

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Jared Milrad

Jared Milrad is an actor, lawyer, and social entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. In April 2015, Jared appeared in Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign launch video, which was viewed more than 10 million times worldwide. He and his husband Nathan Johnson have appeared widely in national and international media, including The New York Times, MSNBC, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, TIME, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Jared is a graduate of Northeastern University School of Law and also has significant leadership experience in public interest law, advocacy, policy, and politics. In 2013, Jared founded Civic Legal Corps, a social enterprise non-profit organization that connects talented new attorneys with low and middle-income families unable to afford legal help. Based in Chicago, Civic Legal Corps has received support from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Ret.), philanthropist Peter Buffett, Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, and many others. A former staffer in The White House, Jared is a graduate with highest honors of North Carolina State University, where he served as the Student Commencement Speaker and received the General Hugh Shelton Leadership Award of Excellence. He earned a graduate degree from Tufts University, where he received the Presidential Award for Citizenship and Public Service. Jared became a practicing vegan at the age of 14 and is a strong supporter of animal protection as well as numerous social causes. An alum of the renowned Second City Training Center in Chicago, Jared lives in the Los Angeles area with his husband, Nate, and their adopted dog, Cooper. Learn more about Jared at jaredmilrad.com.

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