WASHINGTON Mayor Vincent Gray vetoed a bill Thursday that would force Wal-Mart (WMT) and other large retailers to pay their employees at least $12.50 an hour, calling it a "job killer" that would not advance the goal of a living wage for District of Columbia workers.
The bill put Washington at the center of a national debate on how far cities should go in trying to raise pay for low-wage workers -- and whether larger companies should be required to pay more. Supporters -- including unions, clergy and other labor advocates -- said Wal-Mart could afford the higher wages, while opponents said the bill unfairly singled out certain businesses and would have a chilling effect on economic development.
Wal-Mart fought the legislation vigorously, pledging not to build three of the six stores it has planned for the nation's capital if the bill became law. But Gray, a Democrat, said the bill would have a much larger impact than many people realized.
"The bill is a job-killer, because nearly every large retailer now considering opening a store in the district has indicated they would not come here or expand here if this bill becomes law," Gray said, citing Target, Home Depot, Wegmans and others.
The D.C. Council approved the bill in July on an 8-5 vote, one short of a veto-proof majority. It will consider overriding the veto on Tuesday.
Gray pledged his support for "a reasonable increase to the district's minimum wage for all workers." The district's minimum wage is $8.25 an hour, $1 higher than the federal minimum wage.
Cities including San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M., have approved across-the-board minimum-wage hikes in recent years, but the district would have been the first to single out large retailers. The Chicago City Council approved a similar bill seven years ago, but it was vetoed by then-mayor Richard M. Daley. Wal-Mart ultimately opened several stores in Chicago.
The bill applied only to retailers with stores of 75,000 square feet or larger, at least $1 billion in annual sales and non-unionized workforces.
Two of the stores that Wal-Mart had threatened to abandon are located in majority-black communities east of the Anacostia River, where Gray lives and where unemployment is much higher than in the rest of the city. Wal-Mart said it would resume its plans to build all six stores.
"Mayor Gray has chosen jobs, economic development and common sense over special interests -- and that's good news for D.C. residents," Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said. "Now that this discriminatory legislation is behind us, we will move forward on our first stores in our nation's capital."
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, one of the leading advocates for the bill, said the mayor had been listening more closely to Wal-Mart's lobbyists than to city residents.
"It raises some questions in terms of who is actually running the city," Hagler said.
He also suggested that the mayor and the council weren't serious about a possible minimum wage increase.
"Nobody was willing to have that discussion until this bill was on the table," Hagler said. "It's a disingenuous excuse."
Wal-Mart critics urged local lawmakers to override Gray's veto.
"The D.C. council should weigh in and support workers," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank, in a statement. "It is wrong that employees in D.C. --- who work full-time --- are still forced to rely on Medicaid, food stamps and other public assistance programs to make ends meet. The D.C. council should stand up for workers against giant retailers that can afford to pay workers more, but don't."