WashPost Highlights D.C. Passing ‘Living Wage’ Law, Ignores Union Exemption

Walmart, the nation’s largest retail employer is in the process of building the very first of its planned six brand-new stores in Washington, D.C., but the liberal city council plans to welcome them into the city with new legislation mandating that the company "pay their employees a 50 percent premium over the city’s minimum wage." Yet in his 27- paragraph story in the July 11 Washington Post, staff writer Mike DeBonis ignored how the legislation exempts large retailers with unionized workers from paying the premium minimum wage.

The Arkansas-based retailer has threatened to halt construction on its planned six stores, citing the fact that the added labor costs inject uncertainty about the profitability of the operations given the new law's mandates. DeBonis noted that the law requires "[r]etailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger would be required to pay employees no less than $12.50 an hour." Curiously, however, DeBonis failed to mention an exemption in the law that shields unionized companies like grocery chain Safeway from the bill.  DeBonis choose to cite union supporters who support the de facto tax on Wal-Mart, without explaining why unions would love a proposed law that would exclude them from its penalty.


Here's how the law, cynically titled the Large Retailer Accountability Act of 2013, carves out an exemption for unions (emphasis mine):

Any waiver by an individual of any of the provisions of this act shall be deemed contrary to public policy and shall be void and unenforceable, except that employees are not barred from entering into a written valid collective bargaining agreement waiving provisions of this act if such waiver is set forth in clear and unambiguous terms.

In other words, an employee can not individually waive his "right" to $12.50/hour and accept say a lesser wage but offset that with a more flexible work schedule. This law infringes significantly on both the rights of Walmart and individual employees to negotiate wages. But alas, DeBonis failed to find anyone to argue that this law restricts the economic freedom of prospective employees who are willing to work for less than $12.50 and hour and unwilling to join a union. On top of that, union membership comes with an additional bit to a worker's paycheck: union dues. The law is clearly crafted to promote unionized retailers, which financially benefits the coffers of struggling labor unions.

Nor does DeBonis consider the real negative impact to the District's working poor, who could use access to affordable staples and groceries in their own backyard. As the Wall Street Journal points out that, “if Wal-Mart locates new stores in nearby Maryland or Virginia, the poor will lose job opportunities and access to bargain prices that make the products of everyday life (from cellphones to diapers) affordable." Sure, a working class family can hop the bus to a Walmart in Maryland or Virginia, but that means added expense in additional bus fares and time lost commuting. Having a Walmart in the District means less time traveling and, for the city council, more tax revenue.

A resourceful reporter might have delved further into the bill and questioned, for example, why the city council so narrowly drafted the bill and expressly cut out exemptions for all other kinds of large, profitable employers such as the bill's expressly exempted job creators such as [brackets, emphases mine]:

"...banks, conventions, credit unions, educational institutions,franchisees [like fast food establishments and stadium vendors], hospitals, hotels, restaurants, savings institutions and trade shows."

Of course the answer is obvious: A "living wage" law for those things would dramatically hurt business in the District in all of those areas, and the intent of the law is not so much to give more residents a "living wage" as it is punish the politically incorrect Walmart with a provision that pushes it to be a unionized shop.

Besides the additional labor costs, the bill presents large retailers with stringent paperwork regulations, such as the requirement that retailers "shall retain payroll and benefits records pertaining to employees for a period of four years" for inspection by the city government or by "an employee or an employee's designated representative."

The more a reporter would disclose to the public about the bill, the more troublesome it sounds. No wonder DeBonis elected to be fuzzy about the details. That's a shame, however. In a time when the newspaper industry is dying and the Washington Post is hurting for subscribers, it would do well to give readers a fuller, more balanced picture of what's going on in city hall. That they don't shows the paper is more committed to liberal narrative telling than actual journalism.

Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center.