Washington (AFP) – Walmart, the biggest retailer in the United States, is opening its first-ever stores in the U.S. capital — but some aren’t giving it a warm welcome.
Wooed by Mayor Vincent Gray, the big box discounter has made plans to eventually open six locations, ultimately creating as many as 1,800 jobs in a city that, in some neighborhoods, has more than double the national average unemployment rate.
“Jobs? We need jobs here big time,” said Tinisha, who applied for a position at one of the first two stores Walmart is opening in Washington, set to ring up its first sales on December 3.
But not everyone thinks the kind of jobs Walmart offers are a good thing. As recently as this summer, staunch opposition almost succeeded in pushing the retailer to give up its plans.
There are around 4,100 Walmarts across the United States and the retailer is the country’s biggest private employer.
Offering everything a household could need in a one-stop shopping trip, from food to clothing to appliances to books, Walmart is appreciated — sometimes beloved — by bargain hunters.
And that’s the message Walmart was selling when it began to get serious about setting up shop in Washington, saying the super-low prices would benefit the city.
“We are excited to be in DC,” Walmart spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg told AFP.
“People want jobs in DC. We are happy to be part of the solution” to the unemployment problem, she said.
But unions and other groups allied with some city council members launched a strong opposition movement, saying Walmart wasn’t the answer to the city’s unemployment woes.
“People do need jobs. But we need those jobs to be good jobs, and right now Walmart is driving the wage race to the bottom with other retailers,” said Mike Wilson, a member of the group Respect DC, which argues Walmart pays “poverty wages.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) regularly accuses Walmart of “retaliating against (its employees) for speaking out about things like low wages and poor work schedules.”
The unions, as well as some employees, also criticize the limited health insurance plans and irregular work schedules offered by the retailer, which employs some 1.3 million people in the United States.
Taking advantage of the planned opening in Washington, the UFCW started a campaign advocating a higher minimum wage for future Walmart employees in the city.
Responding to the push, city lawmakers approved an increase in the minimum wage in July, from $8.25 an hour to $12.50 an hour for employees of big retailers, including Walmart.
Furious, the company said it would rethink its plans to open stores in Washington.
The measure “unfairly singled out a few retailers,” argued spokeswoman Henneberg, by forcing them to pay a higher minimum wage than other, smaller stores.
But Mayor Gray, who had worked hard to attract Walmart to the city, used his veto on the council’s measure, and Walmart set the grand opening for its first two stores for December 3.
The wage controversy has not ended, however.
City lawmakers in a committee session Monday voted to raise the minimum wage across the city to $11.50 an hour by 2016. The measure must still be voted on by the full council and approved by the mayor before it could become law.
“We don’t want to have our employees working and then having to go and apply for food stamps, apply for assistance” because they still don’t earn enough to support themselves, said Washington Councilmember Vincent Orange.
Tinisha, who is 25 and declined to provide her last name, said she would be happy to have a job, no matter the pay.
She lives just down the street from one of the new Walmarts and, although she wasn’t hired the first time around, plans to “apply again, again and again.”
But across the street, convenience store owner Carlos Rivera said he was resigned to the effect Walmart’s rock bottom prices will have on his business.
“I’m surely going to have to close my store,” he said. “How could I compete against their prices?”