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Wal-Mart Coming To D.C.: Activists Want Promises In Writing

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Chairs were reserved for both Wal-Mart and Mayor Gray, but neither party made it to the rally.
Courtney Collins
Chairs were reserved for both Wal-Mart and Mayor Gray, but neither party made it to the rally.

Seeking a seat at the bargaining table

Brandishing homemade signs reading "Wal-Mart, Respect D.C.!" and "Wheres our seat?," the District residents crowding Freedom Plaza June 22 aren't fighting to keep Wal-Mart out of D.C. They're fighting to keep Wal-Mart from taking advantage of the local economy if the retailer's four proposed stores become a reality.

Wal-Mart's opponents say the stores could prompt closures of small businesses and drive down wages, but the company has promised new jobs and access to more affordable goods.

"They've already saturated the suburbs and outlying areas so now they have to come into the city which is fine, but we just want them to come in and play fair," says James LeBlanc, who works with the Re-entry Network for Returning Citizens.

His is one of more than 40 local groups in the Living Wages Healthy Communities Coalition, which is pushing Wal-Mart to pay employees more.

"Right now as it stands, they only have to pay a dollar above minimum wage, which as we all know is not a living wage in D.C.," LeBlanc says.

Living wage a major issue for Wal-Mart activists

According to the coalition, a living wage in the District is about $12.50 per hour.  Ensuring that employees are paid living wages is something rally attendees want to see in a Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA, between the store and the D.C. government. The coalition wants Wal-Mart to sign a CBA before setting up shop in the District.

But even more important is making sure Wal-Mart includes the coalition when drafting a CBA, says D.C. Jobs Council Coordinator Marina Streznewski.

"Yes, we have elected representatives in Mayor Gray and the members of the council," she says. "But we believe that the people who actually live in the communities where the four stores are proposed really need to have their voices heard about the issues that are of specific concern to them."

As Streznewski speaks to the crowd at the rally, people sit at a long table, symbolizing how community groups need a place at the negotiating table when it’s time to talk fair business practices. Chairs reserved for Wal-Mart and Mayor Vincent Gray remain empty, so attendees write messages to the mayor on paper plates, and a delegation is dispatched to the Wilson Building to deliver them. Someone from the mayor's office receives the plates on his behalf.

D.C. Mayor, Council pledge to include public input

Although Gray and his team are absent from the rally, his office has issues a statement saying the mayor will ensure that Wal-Mart takes into consideration community interest. He adds he will work with the council to do what's in the best interest of the community and those who are concerned about Wal-Mart.

D.C. Council member Vincent Orange says he also hopes the mayor and council will be engaged.

"There really needs to be a public hearing on this issue," he says. "We don't need to just sneak this organization into town."

The groups at the rally appreciate the idea of a public hearing; Streznewski says that kind of transparency is a step in the right direction.

"I think Wal-Mart has an extraordinary opportunity in the District of Columbia," she says. "They can make more money, they can hire D.C. residents, this benefits the city, it benefits the residents, it benefits the tax base. But they have to do things differently than they're used to doing," she says.

But before Wal-Mart rolls into the District and starts rolling back prices, community groups are still waiting for the respect their rally signs demand. And they say a seat at the CBA negotiation table is the only place they're comfortable waiting.

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