Washington, DC, Mayor Vincent Gray arrives for a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Four weeks after the Washington, DC, City Council passed a bill to hike some retail workers’ wages, DC Mayor Vince Gray has not yet indicated whether he will let it become law. The measure, the Large Retailer Accountability Act, has drawn fierce opposition from Walmart, whose urban expansion ambitions have recently been dealt setbacks by labor groups and allied critics. With the bill so far one vote short of a veto-proof majority, an apparently likely mayoral veto could spell defeat for a high-profile challenge to the retail giant’s business model.
A member of Gray’s communications team noted Monday that the council had not yet formally transmitted the bill to the mayor, and told The Nation, “He’ll evaluate it when it comes to his office.” “I think the mayor right now is the absolute wild card,” said Reverend Graylan Hagler, a minister and former union chaplain who’s a leader in the labor-community group Respect DC. “There’s no telling what he’s gonna do.”
But LRAA supporters like Hagler have reason to be concerned—and to hunt for a potential convert on the council. In an interview last month, Deputy Mayor Victor Hoskins appeared to make the case for a veto, telling the Washington Business Journal that the council’s 8-5 vote had already had “a chilling effect” on the city’s efforts to attract retailers, and saying, “People have no idea how damaging this is.” The Washington Post wrote in an editorial Monday that Council Chairman Phil Mendelson “denied he was purposely holding the bill in hopes of getting the votes to sustain a veto…and said council members on both sides of the issue don’t want the issue to come to a head during the summer recess, when members are away.”
The LRAA would require “large retailers”—defined by the square footage of their stores and the revenue of their parent companies—to pay employees at least $12.50 per hour in combined wages and benefits. In a Washington Post op-ed published the day before the council vote, Walmart Regional General Manager Alex Barron warned that the law “would clearly inject unforeseen costs into the equation that would create an uneven playing field and challenge the fiscal health of our planned D.C. stores.” Barron wrote that, while the company had so far refrained from “idle threats,” passing the LRAA would lead Walmart to cancel three planned DC stores, and “jeopardize” the three currently under construction. (In an e-mail to The Nation, Walmart clarified that these consequences would ensue only if the bill actually became law.) Since then, company officials have argued for a veto in venues ranging from national media to a letter to the editor of the Georgetown student paper.