WASHINGTON – An effort to require Wal-Mart and other large retailers to pay their employees a "living wage" of at least $12.50 an hour met its end Tuesday when the D.C. Council failed to override Mayor Vincent Gray's veto.
The bill put Washington at the center of a national debate over compensation for low-wage workers -- and whether some large companies should be required to pay more. Supporters said Wal-Mart can afford to pay higher wages, while opponents said the bill unfairly singled out certain businesses and would have a chilling effect on economic development.
The council voted 7-6 to override the veto, falling two votes short of the required two-thirds majority. The bill was approved in July by an 8-5 vote. Councilmember Anita Bonds, who earlier voted for the bill, voted against the override.
Gray, a Democrat, called the bill a job killer, saying it would drive Wal-Mart and other retailers -- including Home Depot, Target and Wegmans -- out of the city. Wal-Mart had threatened to abandon plans for three of the six stores it had planned for the nation's capital if the bill became law.
After the council failed to override the veto, supporters of the bill protested loudly inside and outside the council chamber, shouting "We won't forget!" The protest briefly interrupted the council meeting. Supporters included unions, some clergy and other advocates for the poor.
The bill applied only to retailers with stores of 75,000 square feet or larger and at least $1 billion in annual corporate sales. It exempted stores with unionized workforces and included a 4-year phase-in period for existing stores.
Debate over the bill spurred the council to consider an across-the-board minimum wage increase, which Gray has said he supports in principle. Three councilmembers introduced competing minimum-wage measures on Tuesday. All of them would hike the city's lowest permissible wage to more than $10 an hour, bringing the district in line with cities including San Francisco and Santa Fe, N.M., that have raised their minimum wages in recent years.
The city's minimum wage is $8.25 an hour, $1 higher than the federal minimum.
Councilmember Vincent Orange, a lead sponsor of the bill affecting Wal-Mart, said his colleagues should not be distracted by the minimum-wage measures and that the large retailer bill should come first.
"This bill kills slave wages in the District of Columbia," Orange said.
Two of the stores Wal-Mart plans to build are in majority-black communities east of the Anacostia River, an area that has substantially higher poverty and unemployment than the rest of the city.
"We look forward to being part of the solution in communities across D.C., especially in areas east of the river that have been traditionally overlooked by major retailers," Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said in a statement.
Councilmember Tommy Wells, a mayoral candidate who voted against the override, credited supporters of the measure with driving the conversation about wages in the city.
"We're going to raise wages in the District of Columbia," Wells said, "and a lot of that is because of the work that you've done."