STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Wal-Mart opened its first two stores in Washington, D.C. yesterday, earning cheers from the district's mayor and some residents who say they'll be happy to shop in the city and not in the suburbs. But there have been months of debate over the wages the big box store pays its employees. Some activists and lawmakers say Wal-Mart does not pay workers enough to live on.
NPR's Allison Keyes has our story.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: More than 100 people were lined up outside of the Georgia Avenue Wal-Mart before it opens its doors. They streamed in as a band played and associates cheered.
Selma Ballentine, one of the first in line, says her daughter-in-law works for Wal-Mart.
SELMA BALLENTINE: It's bringing groceries and jobs to a part of Washington that really need it. I intend to spend some money.
KEYES: Jeannie Brown was excited as she shopped with her daughter.
JEANNIE BROWN: I think it's great for the community and the people. Just making it easier for us.
KEYES: Brown says she heard about the union-backed protests seeking better wages and health care for Wal-Mart workers, but says that isn't keeping her out of this brand spanking new store.
BROWN: If you have a job, you should be thankful for that, you know. I mean it may not be much, but it's a head start towards something.
MAYOR VINCENT GRAY: We had 23,000 applicants for the jobs at Wal-Mart which is a tremendous accomplishment, ladies and gentlemen.
KEYES: Jobs were much on the mind of Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, who lobbied hard to bring the retailer to D.C., over the protests of some community activists and lawmakers. But Gray says 68 percent of the 600 jobs at the two stores went to D.C. residents.
Gray, who announced his re-election campaign earlier this week, is also trying to end what he calls retail leakage - where people live in the city but shop in the suburbs.
GRAY: So creating jobs in the District of Columbia and frankly, we're giving people the opportunity to shop in the District of Columbia.
REVEREND GRAYLAN HAGLER: Shopping amenities is of no earthly good to any of us if we can not afford to live where we need to live, where we want to live, where we choose to live.
KEYES: Activist Reverend Graylan Hagler is with Faith Strategies, part of a coalition of groups including Respect DC and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union that's staging demonstrations over what it says are low wages for Wal-Mart workers.
HAGLER: They don't pay workers fairly and they do not offer the kinds of benefits in an affordable fashion to its workers.
HAGLER: Are you ready for the fight for a living wage?
KEYES: Hagler was in the crowd for a demonstration earlier this week outside city hall over living wages. In July, Wal-Mart threatened to scrap plans for three of its six stores after the D.C. Council passed legislation that would have forced big box stores like Wal-Mart to pay workers 12.50 an hour - well above the district's current 8.25 an hour minimum wage.
Mayor Gray vetoed it. But Wednesday, the D.C. Council unanimously supported a plan to raise the minimum wage across the board to $11.50 an hour by 2016.
JOSLYN WILLIAMS: We need to raise the minimum wage not in 2016, but in 2013.
KEYES: Joslyn Williams is president of the metro Washington AFL-CIO - which is also fighting to raise the minimum wage nationwide.
WILLIAMS: We are doing it locally because Congress is just immune to the people. So we are taking it to Seattle, San Francisco, Denver.
KEYES: Wal-Mart insists its wages and benefits meet or exceed those of most of its competitors and that its full and part-time associates average about $12 an hour. Activists say that figure is closer to about $8.81 an hour.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How many bags you need and under?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Two.
KEYES: Back at the Georgia Avenue Wal-Mart, people like Carolyn White were more concerned about shopping and convenience than wages.
CAROLYN WHITE: I like it because we don't have to go to the suburbs anymore; we're right here.
KEYES: Though, she says she worries about the fate of the smaller stores in the area, she thinks it's great that Wal-Mart is here.
WHITE: I live in the neighborhood, I want a job here.
KEYES: D.C. Council members supporting the new minimum wage bill note that if it passes and the mayor signs it - people like White will be making $11.50 an hour in 2016.
Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.