DC’s Living Wage Bill (good news and bad news)

First the good news: The DC living wage bill, a measure that would force certain big-box retailers to pay a living wage of at least $12.50 per hour, was recently passed by the DC city council.

walmart DC
Photo credit: matteson.norman on Flikr.

Next the better news: Wal-Mart stridently objected to the living wage bill — actually issuing DC councilmembers with an ultimatum: kill the bill or Wal-Mart would halt construction of three of its six planned stores.

Why is this good news? Well, for starters, Wal-Mart stores tend to bring many difficulties into local communities, including fewer small businesses, poverty wages, and a higher taxpayer burden.

The bad news is the bill isn’t out of the woods yet — DC Mayor Vincent Gray, who has the power to veto the bill, is being urged to shut the whole thing down by other mega-retailers such as Target and Home Depot.

We spoke with DC Council Member Vincent Orange on why he’s taken a leadership position on the living wage bill, his thoughts on the possibility of a veto and his personal vision for DC’s economy.

Green America / Martha van Gelder: What kind of responses to the bill have you gotten from your constituents?

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DC Councilmember Vincent Orange

DC Councilmember Vincent Orange: I’ve gotten good response — [voters] want us to stay strong and keep pushing the living wage bill. We’re going to see if we can get a ninth vote of support so we can override the mayor if he vetoes it.

Martha: How hard is it to live in Washington, DC on minimum wage?

Orange: DC is the ninth most expensive city to live in – our expenses are 42% higher than the average US city. The housing market has doubled in cost. It is extremely difficult to live off of $8.25 per hour, which comes to a yearly salary of about $17,000.00.

Martha: You‘ve noted that 1,000 people are moving to DC each month — and that you want to make sure the people who were here during the bad times get to stay for the good times. What are your plans for making that happen?

Orange: By ensuring the entities that LIVING WAGE DCare coming to town are providing good jobs, jobs that citizens can utilize to purchase a home and have a good quality of life without government assistance – people shouldn’t have a full-time job and yet rely on the government to provide food stamps, and housing assistance, where your kids have to get reduced fare lunches. DC residents should have full-time jobs where you can stand on your own.

We do not believe at this point that Wal-Mart is offering that kind of job. What Wal-Mart does is they pay poverty wages and shift the social cost to Government and the tax payers of DC.

Martha: If Wal-Mart doesn’t represent your ideal DC employer, what is your vision for DC’s economy?

Orange: My vision includes implementing policy that consists of the ability to earn a living wage, have affordable housing, affordable health care, and quality education. Then our citizens can prosper. We would like more partners like Costco who are paying an average of $21 per hour.  84% of DC Costco employees are DC residents. That is the kind of company we want to grow and prosper with.

Want to learn more?

In the last issue of the Green American magazine, we explore the question of whether “made in the USA” means sweatshop-free. We found that it doesn’t — and Wal-Mart’s labor practices are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the mistreatment of workers in the US.

How can you ensure your dollars aren’t supporting worker abuse? Subscribe to our magazine, sign up for our free e-newsletter, or read up on the “Fair Labor at Home” tips from the latest issue of our magazine.

March to Save Blair Mountain

In 1921, more than 10,000 West Virginia coal miners marched over Blair Mountain, in Logan County, WV, protesting unsafe working conditions in the mines, and with the intention of rescuing illegally imprisoned mine workers in Mingo County, on the Kentucky border. The marchers were met on the mountain by heavily armed anti-union coal-company thugs, and the result was the bloodiest battle on US soil since the Civil War.

This past weekend, in a march truly designed to bring together both sides of the green equations — people and the planet — nearly 800 pro-union and pro-clean-energy advocates recreated the march to Blair Mountain, in support of good clean-energy jobs for West Virginia, and in opposition to mountaintop removal mining.

In 2009, the National Park Service had listed Blair Mountain in the National Register because of the battle that happened there. But after lobbying from coal companies, the listing was removed, and now Blair Mountain faces destruction from mountaintop removal coal mining. Meanwhile, local residents suffer from polluted air and water, and ruined land covered over with “fill” — the tops of the mountains dumped down into the valleys after they’ve been blown to bits for the coal.

Green America marched in solidarity with local residents, workers’ rights advocates, and clean energy advocates, for a brighter Appalachian future.

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