Anti-Wal-Mart group to revisit local wage law

LET’s STOP Wal-Mart, a citizens group that opposes Wal-Mart, will hold a forum Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch of the Mercer County Library System.

By:Lea Kahn Staff Writer
   A citizens’ group that opposes Wal-Mart, an Arkansas-based national chain that wants to build a store in Lawrence, plans to hold a forum next week to provide an overview of living wage campaigns throughout the United States.
   The meeting, set for Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the Lawrence Branch of the Mercer County Library System, is sponsored by LET’s Stop Wal-Mart. The group comprises Lawrence, Ewing and Trenton residents.
   Wal-Mart is seeking the Lawrence Township Planning Board’s approval to build a 149,149- square-foot store at 1060 and 1100 Spruce St. The property is on the border of Lawrence and Ewing.
   LET’s Stop Wal-Mart asked Township Council last month to introduce a living wage ordinance, but the governing body declined to take action, citing the advice of Municipal Attorney Kevin Nerwinski.
   The Tuesday night forum will detail how and why Lawrence Township would benefit from passing the Large Retailer Accountability Ordinance, or living wage ordinance, said Carol Lerner, a coordinator of LET’s Stop Wal-Mart.
   Attorney Jennifer Sung of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law will speak on the issue of a living wage ordinance, Ms. Lerner said. Ms. Sung helped draft the living wage ordinance presented to the Township Council, she said.
   Ms. Sung provided legal assistance to many grassroots coalitions and campaigns throughout the country that have fought — or are currently fighting — for a living wage for the lowest paid workers, particularly those who work for corporate big box retail stores, Ms. Lerner said.
   The ordinance that was proposed by LET’s Stop Wal-Mart is aimed at large retailers — defined as a retail store that occupies at least 100,000 square feet of space and whose parent company grosses more than $1 billion annually. The description fits Wal-Mart and its proposed store for Lawrence.
   LET’s Stop Wal-Mart’s proposed ordinance would have required the retailer to pay its workers a living wage of at least 115 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four, or $22,253.
   The retailer also would have been required to provide health benefits to its workers and pay a fair share of the employees’ health-care costs. The goal is to avoid employees’ dependence on public health clinics or Medicaid, according to the ordinance.
   Last month, Mr. Nerwinski advised Township Council that the proposed ordinance would be pre-empted by state and federal law. In legal terms, pre-emption means in cases where state and federal governments have adopted laws to regulate a given subject matter, local legislation seeking to control the same subject matter is invalid.
   This week, Ms. Lerner said the anti-Wal-Mart group would "probably" try to present a similar living wage ordinance to Township Council at a later date. The group has not given up on the ordinance, she said.
   Ms. Lerner said the group would not be opposed to Township Council’s adoption of a resolution supporting a living wage for workers, "but it is not the preferred route." A resolution is not binding, nor can it be enforced, but it is a good first step, she said.
   LET’s Stop Wal-Mart favors a living wage ordinance because low-wage employees cannot survive on their paychecks, she said. A worker earning $10 per hour can barely "make it," she said.
   The minimum wage in New Jersey is $6.15 per hour, and it is slated to go up to $7.15 in October, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Web site.
   Many employees do not choose to take health-care coverage offered to them because of the cost of the health insurance premiums, Ms. Lerner said. They cannot afford to have more money taken out of their paychecks, she said.
   Wal-Mart did not return requests for comment.