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.”