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Spokane’s big box test

In Washington state – would be interesting to know where else this is the case – cities can impose their own minimum wage ordinances, as long as they at least meet state requirements. That much apparently is settled in state law. What’s unsettled is to what extent cities can impose the requirements on just some employers.

Wal-MartSpokane seems about to turn into the test case. There, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane is pushing a local initiative to raise by about a third the minimum wages paid to employees in the city’s big box retail stores – Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Fred Meyer and others. The group describes the ordinance’s purpose as:

This ordinance would require all “big box” retailers in the City of Spokane whose business premises are at 95,000 square feet or more, to pay their employees who have been employed for three or more months 135% of Washington State minimum wage if they do not provide health benefits ($10.30 per hour) and 165% of Washington State minimum wage if they do not provide health benefits ($12.58). This ordinance does not negate collective bargaining agreements established by unions or their respective members.

You see where this is headed: To force the Wal-Marts to pay livable, sustaining wages rather than push a whole range of costs off on the rest of us. Understandable; but is that kind of size distinction between the big boxes and, say, the local hardware store the kind of distinction that can stand up in court? We don’t yet know.

The big boxes will challenge it, of course, and obviously will fight in the upcoming campaign. Some have started threatening leaving the city – which seems unlikely unless they want to argue that the only way they want the city’s business is on the cheap. (They will not have an easy PR case to make.)

Our offhand guess is that the initiative stands a pretty good chance of passage. If it does, it could touch off a wild political scramble that could reshape some important economic dynamics in the Northwest and beyond.

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