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At Last, Walmart Opens in Washington, D.C.

Protesters stay home.

12:54 PM, Dec 4, 2013 • By JIM SWIFT
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At the corner of First and H Streets in Northwest Washington, the balloons were all set, hanging stories high in the cold morning air. The inflatable Pepsi and Mountain Dew bottles were twisting in the breeze, and a mini-hoop game was set up. There was even a marching band and Chester the Cheetos Cheetah.

The time had finally come for Washington, D.C. — the last holdout in the lower 48 —to get its first two Walmart stores. In 1996, Vermont was the last state to go Walmart blue. Now it’s Washington’s turn, and four more stores are planned.

Just before 7 a.m., a group of about 30 people huddled in a line along the new mixed-use development along the trendy H street corridor. The line would later swell to close to 200 just before the doors opened at 8. Police were on hand to keep order, not only for the masses waiting for low-priced goods, but in case protestors came. None did.

In Washington, many have fought Walmart’s arrival. Union and liberal activists complained, loudly, over Walmart’s lack of union representation and over the wages its employees make. And, for a few days earlier this year, it appeared the unions and “living wage” advocates scored a major victory with passage of the Large Retailer Accountability Act by the D.C. City Council. 

The Washington Post reported that the bill:

would require retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating District stores of at least 75,000 square feet to pay their employees a “living wage” — no less than $12.50 an hour in combined wages and benefits. The proposal includes an exception for employers who collectively bargain with their workers. Existing employers would have four years to come into compliance. 

That bill was ultimately vetoed by Washington’s embattled mayor, Vincent Gray, a Democrat. He said the bill was a “job killer” and that it wasn’t a “true living wage bill” because its application would apply to a relative few in the District’s labor force.

According to Walmart, 23,000 people applied for the 600 positions at the two recently opened stores. The Daily Beast posited that getting a job at one of these two stores was “harder than getting into Harvard.” Of the 23,000 applications, only 65 percent of applications came from D.C. residents and among those hired, 68 percent are District residents.

Those in line were excited about the new store. One resident, donning a Dallas Cowboys hat, quipped that the fervor of the new retailer was similar to that of a small rural town’s. Most were impatient, wanting the fanfare to end so they could get inside and shop. One woman in a black Mercedes rolled down her window to ask when the store was opening and upon hearing it would open in a few minutes, she pulled her car into the garage to get in line. 

Antoinette was the first in line, having arrived around 6:30 a.m. Bundled up with a scarf and still sporting an “Obama for President” button that had seen better days, she told me that the store was going to bring a lot of good paying jobs to the neighborhood and that it would save her a long bus trip to the Walmart in neighboring Maryland that required her to change buses. 

Around 8, the doors opened and a small cadre of Dunbar High School’s band played as the line filed in. Shoppers were offered free cake, water bottles with information about the store’s pharmacy, and free samples of a wide variety of products from vendors. One gentleman ignored all the pomp and circumstance, and headed straight to electronics. As one of the first to check out, he purchased two $500 Xbox One gaming consoles, which are hard to come by here.

Despite the failure of the Large Retailer Accountability Act, it appears the minimum wage in Washington is set to rise to $11.50 in coming years since there is near unanimity among those on the city council. InTheCapital’s Anthony Sodd wrote that the “[City] Council gets last laugh in fight with Walmart.” Still, protests are being organized and employee walkouts, while unlikely at the two new D.C. Walmart stores, are being discussed by labor organizers regarding a “living wage." Mayor Gray supports a more modest minimum wage increase to $10 from the current level of $8.25, but the council’s unanimous support for the $11.50 minimum wage means it’ll have a veto-proof majority.

So, instead of a law that targets only large retailers, the council is proposing a minimum wage increase that applies to most employers. The Washington Examiner’s Sean Higgins observes that the new proposed wage increase has the "unintended effect of helping to insulate D.C.’s six new Walmarts from economic competition” since smaller retailers might have a harder time absorbing the wage increases. 

Who gets the “last laugh” is perhaps a matter of perspective.  

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