Progressives Beat Back Walmart. Now Let’s Beat Back Unemployment

Isaiah J. Poole

Progressives won a victory in Washington this week when the D.C. City Council stood up to Walmart and passed a bill that would require the retailer, and other nonunion big-box retailers, to pay their employees a $12.50 minimum wage.

Walmart promptly announced that it would halt plans to build six stores in the city, immediately shelving three on the drawing board and likely shuttering three others that are in the early stages of construction. To which a lot of people in the city responded, “Good riddance.”

What remains, however, is stubbornly high unemployment in a city that epitomizes the racial and class income inequality plaguing the country, and the fact that there is no clear plan being executed to address it. Now that we have stood against Walmart, progressives in and out of elected office need to have as vigorous an agenda for ending this inequality and putting people back to work in D.C. and urban areas like it.

Many of the working-class Washingtonians who comprise what many of us consider “the real D.C.” did not consider Walmart’s decision to back out of Washington a victory at all. What they saw were progressive activists chasing a source of jobs and low-cost merchandise out of neighborhoods that desperately needed both. And this has leaders who should know better reciting lines straight out of the Tea Party playbook. One of those was Yvette Alexander, Ward 7 council member, who told a local TV station this week that government shouldn’t be in the business of telling retailers what they should be paying their workers.

Unemployment in Washington right now is 8.5 percent. That’s bad enough in the context of the national unemployment rate of 7.6 percent, but that does not tell the whole story. In Alexander’s Ward 7, where two of the Walmarts were to be located, the unemployment rate in December, the latest figures available, was 14 percent. Across town in Ward 3, which includes Georgetown and the west end neighborhoods along Connecticut, Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, the unemployment rate was 2 percent. Ward 7 is 95 percent black. Ward 3 is 84 percent white, 5 percent black.

There were good reasons to insist that Walmart pay its workers a living wage. The Economic Policy Institute’s family budget calculator shows that a single parent raising a child in the Washington area needs to earn a stunning $70,000 a year to live modestly but comfortably in the city. Of course, a lot of D.C. residents of necessity make do with less. A relative does child care. They forego health insurance or doctor visits. They double or triple up on housing. But even doing all that, it is too much to expect a worker to raise a family on a job paying the D.C. minimum wage of $8.25 an hour. And, let’s be clear, a large majority of the people who would be employed by Walmart would not be people for whom a Walmart pay check would be pocket change for extras; their pay would have been their main source of income.

This would be less of an issue if the minimum wage itself had maintained its purchasing power since the late 1960s, but the fact is it hasn’t – hence the campaign this summer by the Progressive Caucus to “raise up America” with a proposal along the lines of Rep. George Miller’s bill to raise the minimum wage in steps to $10.10 an hour and index it to inflation from that point forward.

But what we also need is a targeted jobs agenda for inner-city communities around the country that reflects the urgency and scale of the crisis they face.

Next month thousands of people will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. During his famous speech on that day, Dr. Martin Luther King remarked that “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” and that America “has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'” For too much of the African-American community, too little has changed: unemployment rates remain double that of whites, and incomes are dramatically lower, even among African Americans with college degrees. This is a condition that cries out for an all-out, Code-Red response at all levels. We should be challenging President Obama to talk more about it, demanding that Congress get off its austerity mindset and spend the money necessary to put people back to work on jobs that need doing, and insisting that local officials get serious about programs and policies that will create more job opportunities and help unemployed people benefit from those opportunities. And we need to identify and call out the obstructionists standing in the way of a more economically just future.

Walmart has television ads packaging its subsistence jobs as “opportunities” for young African Americans. Progressives have a better message of opportunity for African Americans and all people struggling in this inequitable economy. It is time to step up our agitation for that positive agenda.


This post has been updated to correct the District of Columbia minimum wage.

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