The nation's largest employer, Walmart, is notorious for its poor working conditions, discrimination, and union busting. As its stores spread through the suburbs, small businesses closed and wages dropped or stagnated. Walmart's newest shameless strategy seeks to bring its stores to impoverished urban areas, some of which are considered "food deserts." Walmart claims that its stores will bring good jobs and even other businesses to such areas, and, despite a lack of evidence, promote a healthier diet. Although some liberals and conservatives have shown support for Walmart's plan, Washington, D.C., chose to stand up to Walmart's unethical labor practices, voting to pass a living wage law that would require Walmart and other non-unionized large retailers to pay their workers at least 12.50 an hour — 150% of the local minimum wage. In response, Walmart threatened to back out of its plan to open a store in the struggling Skyland area, and possibly other locations in the city.
The D.C. Council's living wage vote comes in the midst of a national campaign to raise the minimum wage, an initiative that has primarily focused on workers in the retail and food industries. As advocates for a higher minimum wage point out, individuals working full-time for the lowest legal salary often cannot afford basic necessities such as food and housing. The New York City-based organization Fast Food Forward says its best in its slogan: "We can't survive on 7.25."
The campaign targets employers such as Walmart and McDonald's not only for their large minimum-wage workforce, but also for the few opportunities for advancement they offer their employees. A recent study by the National Employment Law Project found that technical, managerial, and professional occupations comprise just 2.2% of the jobs in the fast food industry, compared with 31.1% of all U.S. jobs. The median wage for the vast majority of fast food workers is $8.94 per hour. The average hourly wage of a Walmart "sales associate" is $8.81, according to Making Change at Walmart, a workers' rights campaign. Given these figures, raising the minimum wage may be one of the most effective ways to improve the quality of life for retail and fast food workers, while also curbing the growth of mega-corporations.
While conservatives and business interests characterize living wage laws as a government intrusion on the freedom of enterprise, the reality is that corporations like Walmart have long been subsidized by taxpayer money. Underpaid employees are forced to rely on food stamps and publicly funded health care, costing taxpayers as much as $1 billion per year. The tax revenues from Walmart stores also tend to be substantially lower than those that would be received from a mixed-use development on the same site. Meanwhile, Walmart CEO Michael Duke raked in a whopping $20.7 million in 2012. The Huffington Post calculated that a Walmart employee making $12.67 per hour would have to work for 785 years to earn Duke's annual salary.
The great inequality of Walmart's practices is no secret, yet, in recent yearsm the company has successfully promoted itself as an agent of development and uplift. A TV ad airing on PBS references Martin Luther King and represents the store as a positive addition to a predominantly black, working-class, urban neighborhoods. In 2011, community food advocates and Michelle Obama supported Walmart's proposal to open up to 300 stores in areas designated as "food deserts" — neighborhoods without reliable access to fresh groceries. Like Washington, D.C.'s Ward 7, these are often poor urban neighborhoods.
The legislation the D.C. Council passed is notable not only because of the significant wage hike it promises retail workers, but also because it explicitly confronts the myth of Walmart as an agent of urban renewal. Chicago passed similar legislation in 2006, but that law was vetoed by the then-mayor Richard Daley, which allowed Walmart to open nine stores in the area. A study of a Walmart store on Chicago's West Side found that it resulted in the closure of 40% of competing local businesses and the loss of about 300 jobs, most of which were replaced by jobs at the store. It had no significant impact on income levels. The advocacy groups behind the D.C. legislation, which included civic, religious, and labor organizations, understood that the kind of development Walmart offers is unlikely to benefit Ward 7's low-income residents. In response to the corporation's threat to halt development, Reverend James Coleman told Bloomberg, “People say this is a something-or-nothing proposition. Sometimes, something isn’t better than nothing.” Councilman Vincent B. Orange also expressed resolve: “The question here is a living wage; it’s not whether Walmart comes or stays. We’re at a point where we don’t need retailers. Retailers need us.”
If approved by Mayor Vincent Gray, D.C.'s living wage measure will send a strong message to big business. As low-wage workers organize and take to the streets, we may see similar living wage measures pass at both the municipal and state levels. Yet such legislation is more likely to take hold in metropolitan areas and blue states. On the national level, the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and tie it to the cost of living, has a slim chance of getting through the Republican-controlled house. Without federal legislation, millions of workers will continue to live in poverty, and exploitative big business will still find a haven in so-called "right-to-work" states.