So Wal-Mart is threatening to cancel its plans to open three stores in DC if the Council goes forward and passes the “Large Retailer Accountability Act,” which raises the minimum wage from $8.25 to $12.50 only for businesses that occupy more than 75,000 square feet. This showdown has no good potential outcome, is a large embarrassment, was completely predictable, and yet still has a very simple solution.
DC needs work, and it needs groceries and other goods and services easily available to lower-class residents at affordable prices. This is why District officials were wooing Wal-Mart for so long in the first place.
But Wal-Mart is a terribly and notoriously nasty employer and a fiercely spiteful institutional player, one that prizes itself on its willingness to abuse, fire, and sabotage the careers and sanity of its workforce, and its willingness to play chicken and act the bully with political officials. So it’s no surprise that Wal-Mart is reacting to legislation that is all but a bill of attainder with bluster and threats.
So what is a DC Council to do? If they vote for this bill (which they already passed once, 8-5), Wal-Mart may in fact leave, which would be both a short-term setback for living conditions among the District’s worst-off but also a longer-term setback that could prove some of the worst stereotypes about the DC Council true – why would any other non-Wal-Mart business invest in DC if they thought they would wooed until the point of no return, then have the rules changed on them? On the other hand, if the Council fails the bill, it will prove itself powerless in the face of Wal-Mart’s tantrum, leaving itself nakedly toothless for the world to see.
But it’s not quiiiite a no-win situation – the Council does have a winning play, the same play they should have played all along – raise the minimum wage for everybody. Frankly, there is no policy or moral justification for why Wal-Mart and other large retailers should have to pay higher wages than any other business, and the obviousness of this attempt to target Wal-Mart is doubly embarrassing for all the years the District spent wooing the Bully of Bentonville in the first place. Raise the minimum wage for everyone, and the playing field is even, and Wal-Mart suddenly loses either way – if they pull out, they’ve proved their problem is with paying living wages and not with being singled out, and it also shows that all the businesses small and large that will continue to thrive (and they will) prove that Wal-Mart’s protestations of inability to pay living wages are spurious; if they stay, then they’re creating lots of jobs that pay $12.50/hr! And even better, every other minimum wage employee in DC gets a raise.