National Consumers League

Let's celebrate this Labor Day by fighting for the country's low-wage workers

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

With Labor Day 2013 upon us, we have the opportunity to stand with low-income workers in the District of Columbia (DC) and by extension, all of the working poor. NCL has taken part in two recent campaigns in DC in an effort to lift up those who are often exploited and toil for unconscionably low wages. The first campaign supports the efforts of Good Jobs Nation.

NCL joined with this worker organization to help publicize the low wages federal contractors are permitted to pay those who serve food in the museums and tourist locales around the city. Twice in the past month our staff and our six summer interns hopped the DC Metro down to the National Mall to support walk-outs and rallies by hundreds of minimum wage employees. We’ve helped to publicize the fact that contractors who run fast food outlets like Subway and McDonalds, and who secure lucrative contracts with the federal government to provide meals at places like the Air and Space Museum and Union Station in Washington DC, often pay less than the DC minimum wage of $8.25 an hour, and sometimes even less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

We think tourists and taxpayers would be unhappy to learn that many of these federal contractors are not playing by the rules and are engaging in wage theft, which includes not paying the requisite time and a half for overtime or paying less than the required DC or federal minimum wage. All the while, these contractors are reaping millions in profits from tourists who have little choice but to eat in these establishments when they visit DC’s many wonderful sites. We, Good Jobs Nation, and many other groups are calling on President Obama to sign an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay a living wage to all workers. We urge everyone to go to the Good Jobs Nation website and sign the letter to the President.

We’re committed to supporting these workers in their efforts to earn not only the minimum wage but the DC living wage – which has been evaluated to be $12.50 an hour. If workers received a living wage they would make $26,000 annually working a 40-hour work-week. The second major DC-focused campaign is the DC City Council’s legislation, passed by an 8-5 tally, requiring that big box stores operating in DC, that have $1 billion in corporate sales and at least 75,000 square feet, pay a living wage of $12.50. Walmart has three stores operating in the District already, but because of the Council’s action, they are threatening to stop construction on the other three and take their business elsewhere. The bill now sits on DC Mayor Vincent Gray’s desk; NCL has written to the Mayor asking him to support the Council’s measure. Both campaigns have one thing in common: they are aimed at improving the wages and living conditions of the District’s working poor, who often are left to try and raise families on incomes of $15,000 or less in a very expensive city.

The argument from Walmart and its supporters is that these jobs, indeed, any jobs, are better than no jobs. A Washington Post article written by Jim Tankersley on August 8, debunks this claim showing raw statistics that demonstrate how Walmart affects a community and the number of jobs available. “Economic research suggests that the net job-creation benefits of a new Walmart usually prove minimal, at best. That is because when Walmart opens a store, it often drives other retailers out of business, forcing their employees out of work.

A 2004 paper from economist Emek Basker of the University of Missouri found that the introduction of a Walmart to a community usually raised retail employment by 100 jobs at first, but that number fell to a net gain of 50 jobs in the long run. A year later, a trio of economists from California and Massachusetts found that a Walmart entry reduces employment by 150 jobs in the long term. A 2008 study of Maryland Walmarts (sic) found the stores reduced overall retail employment in the areas where they were introduced but pushed up retail wages.” If Walmart effectively stalls job creation and then reduces the overall number of jobs in the long term, perhaps DC would be better without Walmart’s jobs. These parallel campaigns are front and center during this Labor Day.

We think both President Obama and the DC Mayor (with kudos to the DC City Council) have a unique opportunity to lift up the workers in DC and demand that that stores like Walmart and federal contractors who run the McDonalds and Subways provide a living wage to all workers. This seems like a reasonable request in light of the huge profits these companies make, and bringing these demands to fruition would be a very worthy way, indeed, to celebrate Labor Day 2013.