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  July 19, 2013

DC Council Tells Wal-mart Living Wage is Non-Negotiable

Josh Eidelson: DC's action is a major hit to America's largest employer Wal-mart, as workers mobilize nationwide to demand a living wage
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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Recently, D.C. city council passed a bill requiring large retailers to pay a living wage. In D.C., that would mean that big retailers like Walmart would have to pay $12.50 an hour. This was a direct blow to the mega-retailer Walmart, which plans to open six stores in D.C. But with this latest news, the retailer says that it's putting the brakes on its plan, and in an op-ed in The Washington Post, they said that they will reevaluate whether it will go forward with three locations already under construction.

Here to unpack all this is Josh Eidelson. Josh covers labor as a contributing writer at The Nation, Salon, and In These Times. He appears frequently as a commentator on labor and politics on radio and TV, and he is based in New York.

Thank you for joining us, Josh.


DESVARIEUX: So, Josh, let's talk a little bit about Walmart and how they're saying that they're coming under attack. What do you make of all this?

EIDELSON: So what's striking in D.C. is a few things. One is that for many years now one of the fronts in the fight over the Walmartization of the U.S. economy has been in these site fights, these struggles over Walmart's ability to expand. Walmart has saturated many parts of its core market. And so, moving abroad and moving into inner cities is a huge part of the company's growth ambition.

We've seen a dramatic showdown like this in the past in Chicago several years ago when the City Council passed such a bill but was vetoed by Mayor Daley. We still don't know in D.C. whether Vince Gray will veto the bill. We do often see that mayors are more responsive to the business community than individual members of city council. And it also illustrates the way in which people may want something, people may have political democracy, but the ability of big business to threaten to leave is a very powerful cudgel, whether you're talking about reasons that countries don't pass the laws that many people would like them to or what happens at a city level.

This also highlights the murkiness, as the Huffington Post's Dave Jamieson put it, of Walmart's claims about its own wages. The company puts out a figure for its average wage that's well over $12, but that's a figure that the company won't provide documentation for, which it acknowledges rules out--leaves out the large number of part-time and temporary workers at Walmart and also includes management. Another estimate by IBISWorld put the figure at under $9 an hour. So Walmart's ferocious resistance to a starting wage of $12.50 suggests something about the company's business model.

And this is a company that is not like other companies. This is a company that is the dominant economic player, the largest employer in our economy. And so the challenge to Walmart is hugely significant in terms of the future of the U.S. economy.

And what's also different about the challenge now is that we actually see Walmart workers on the front lines of that campaign. We've seen these historic strikes by workers throughout Walmart's U.S. supply chain, something that was totally absent from the past campaigns against Walmart that didn't actually get that far.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. You sort of brought this up, just the history of Walmart being very anti-union, really hiring a lot of part-time workers and relying on this part-time worker base to increase their profits and not have to pay out for benefits and things of that nature. What else is different about this latest chapter in this ongoing saga?

EIDELSON: So we saw in November the largest strike by U.S. Walmart workers ever. There were something over 400 workers out on strike against perhaps the most anti-union, anti-organizing company in the United States. We then last month, in June, saw the longest strike, as workers went out for over a week and traveled to Arkansas to protest at the company's shareholder meeting and in the leadup to it, protests that I covered for The Nation.

We now see what appears to be the empire striking back, as there are allegations of dozens of cases of retaliation, including over a dozen terminations of those workers who participated in the strike. So that's a huge challenge for this campaign that has so far brought together a greater level of actual worker movement within Walmart than we've seen in the past in the United States.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And as you mentioned before, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray has the option to veto the bill, so we don't know if it will actually become a law. But from what you have gathered, what is the sort of political connections that Walmart has? And if you could just elaborate a little bit, how much political sway do they have in the city of D.C.?

EIDELSON: Walmart is tremendously politically connected. Lee Fang and I reported for The Nation on the case of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was the president of Walmart Foundation, a foundation that uses philanthropy to soften the ground for Walmart expansion into cities like New York. She was elevated by Obama to be the head of the Office of Management and Budget.

We also reported last week about the Walmart funding and Walmart lobbyist funding behind the push for a so-called alternative safety plan for Bangladesh, something that's much weaker than what labor groups in the U.S. and Bangladesh are pushing.

Now, some [incompr.] have argued that Walmart does not have the same level of political connection to local officials in D.C. than it does to members of Congress and members of the executive branch in D.C. And certainly the fact that this passed at all is a setback for Walmart. Whether Walmart can use its clout in the threat of departing to force Vince Gray's hand is something that remains to be seen.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Thanks so much for joining us, Josh.

EIDELSON: Thank you very much.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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