Everyday High Wages, and Not Just at Walmart

Raising the minimum wage for all D.C. residents is better than singling out Walmart.

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Nawal Elmilliax joins the protest against Wal-Mart in Boynton Beach, Fla., Friday, Nov 23, 2012. Wal-Mart employees and union supporters are taking part in today's nationwide demonstration for better pay and benefits A union-backed group called OUR Walmart, which includes former and current workers, was staging the demonstrations and walkouts at hundreds of stores on Black Friday, the day when retailers traditionally turn a profit for the year.

It seems Walmart will officially be coming to the nation's capital, as the Washington, D.C., city council yesterday refused to override Mayor Vincent Gray's recent veto of a bill that would have required the retail giant to pay a minimum wage of $12.50 in the District. Walmart had threatened to cancel the construction of some of the six stores it plans to open in D.C. if the bill had become law.

But for those disappointed that the so-called Large Retailer Accountability Act – which was ostensibly aimed at all big-box retailers, but in reality singled out Walmart – won't become law, there is a much better proposal on the table: simply raising the D.C. minimum wage. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who is running for mayor, plans to introduce legislation that would raise the D.C. minimum wage from its current $8.25 to $10.25 per hour.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

This seems far preferable to passage of a minimum wage that, for all intents and purposes, applies solely to Walmart. Though Walmart's labor practices are truly abysmal, and its attempts to prevent unionization downright appalling, I fail to see the wisdom in requiring a living wage for workers at Walmart, while those working at, say, McDonalds, remain stuck at $8.50. While the hue and cry over the Walmart minimum wage bill being a "job killer," was almost certainly overblown – as it's questionable whether Walmart is a job-creator at all – preferring one set of workers over another solely because of where they work doesn't make a ton of sense. If $8.50 is not enough for a Walmart worker to live on, then it's not enough for a fast food employee or someone working at a drycleaners or a hardware store either.

And there is plenty of precedent for a $10 minimum wage. California recently passed a bill that would raise its minimum wage to $10, which Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign, making the Golden State the first to go so high. But several other cities are already there, including San Francisco, which at $10.55 has the highest minimum wage in the country, and San Jose. A slew of states have also pushed to increase their respective minimum wages recently.

As an issue, raising the minimum wage has gotten a boost of late due to a couple of factors. First, President Obama called for increasing the federal minimum wage in his most recent State of the Union address. Meanwhile, fast food workers across the country have been going on strike to protest low wages and their inability to unionize, in places as diverse as New York City, Peoria, Ill., Missoula, Mont., Topeka, Kansas, and Richmond, Calif.

[Check out our gallery of political cartoons.]

It's worth remembering that if the minimum wage had simply kept up with inflation since 1968, it would be approximately $10.40 today. To have the same purchasing power it did then, it would have to be about $9.92. From that point of view, a $10.25 minimum wage is more than fair; in fact, it's just barely acceptable.

But picking out one company that has to pay higher wages, while leaving other workers behind, is not the way to go about building a sustainable economy. As Wells said, D.C. should be a city "where everyone can live, work and raise a family – regardless of their employer." A $10.25 minimum wage across the entire District would be a good start toward achieving that goal.

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