DC officials are welcoming six Wal-Mart stores into the city. That would be an exciting development except that the biggest retailer in the world has a poor reputation – for wage theft (forcing employees to work off the clock), failing to promote women, keeping wages so low that employees can’t afford health insurance, busting efforts to unionize, signing their employees up for food stamps because they pay such bad wages, and squeezing their suppliers to reduce prices so severely they’ve driven some of them out of business. And yet, it’s hard for DC to turn its nose up at an offer to provide fresh grocery options in neighborhoods that currently have only fast food and convenience shops. It’s regrettable that the city’s two largest and longstanding unionized grocery chains – Giant and Safeway – haven’t moved into these neighborhoods.
So now we have Wal-Mart saying it will provide 1,800 jobs, offer fresh produce, and pay competitively; not surprisingly, DC locals are happy to have them. If this deal moves forward, the one thing DC Mayor Vincent Gray should do, given Wal-Mart’s sorry reputation, is to require as a condition of providing permits to open the stores, a community benefits agreement that would provide the city with important concessions. Wal-Mart has curried favor by making donations to charitable organizations, including $3 million to workforce development in DC, and over half a million for summer youth employment. That’s not enough. The city should get really creative, and require that the chain remain neutral to the UFCW’s organizing efforts, require payment of a livable wage for all workers, have a plan to promote women and minorities in the management chain, and establish training programs for the city’s youth.
Wal-Mart doesn’t have to live with a bad image among labor forever. The company will be coming to DC in force and has a great opportunity to start to make over that image.