Walmart’s shareholder meeting drew some star power on Wednesday, just not the kind the retailer was hoping for.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) crashed the annual confab near Bentonville, Arkansas, to demand at least $15 per hour for Walmart employees and their placement on the company’s board of directors. The Democratic presidential hopeful held up the world’s largest retailer as a symbol of income inequality in the U.S.
“People are earning wages that are so inadequate they cannot provide for their families ... and that’s absurd,” the Vermont independent said in a campaign video filmed in a car on his way to the meeting. “What we’re doing today is telling the wealthiest family in the country, the Walton family that owns Walmart, that they have got to start paying their workers a living wage.”
He later delivered a speech to Walmart employees and supporters outside the convention center, clarifying that a living wage means “at least 15 bucks an hour.”
Kory Lundberg, a Walmart spokesman, said new employees now start out making at least $11 per hour, due to recent increases to the company’s minimum wage. He said that combined with benefits the average hourly employee earns $17.50 an hour in total compensation.
“We’ve invested $4.5 billion in four years on increased pay, expanded health benefits for full and part time associates, put in place a debt free college plan and have created 200 training academies across the country to help associates develop transferable job skills,” Lundberg said in response to Sanders’ criticisms.
People are earning wages that are so inadequate they cannot provide for their families ... and that’s absurd. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Walmart’s shareholder meeting is typically a celebrity-studded affair meant to cheerlead the company and select members for the board of directors. This year classic rocker Peter Frampton is scheduled to hold a free concert at Bud Walton Arena.
But Sanders brought a different sort of publicity to the event. Few members of Congress have been as critical of Walmart over the years. In his constant criticism of billionaires, Sanders loves to single out the Walton family, which owns a little over half of Walmart’s stock and still largely controls the company.
Sanders headed to the event with members of the Organization United for Respect, formerly known as OUR Walmart, which led a series of Black Friday strikes by employees starting in 2012. The group has been calling on the retailer to raise wages and offer more stable scheduling, among other demands.
Cat Davis, a member of the group and 11-year Walmart veteran, submitted a shareholder proposal that would install an hourly employee on the board, something U.S. companies don’t typically do. Democratic candidates like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have been pushing the idea of putting workers on corporate boards so that they can influence company policy.
The Organization United for Respect said it was the first time such a proposal had been filed at Walmart. Sanders, the group said, went to Arkansas at Davis’ invitation, to speak in support of the measure.
“What’s going on in Walmart is just an example of what’s going on all over this country ... the very wealthy are getting wealthier, and working people are struggling,” Sanders said.