Bernie Sanders, Fresh Off Amazon Wage Hike Win, Targets Walmart In New Bill

The Stop WALMART Act is designed to pressure America's largest employer into raising pay.

WASHINGTON ― Sen. Bernie Sanders shamed Amazon so badly over its employee pay that the online retailer announced a new $15 minimum wage last month. Now the Vermont independent has set his sights on another low-wage bogeyman and Amazon competitor: Walmart.

In a bill introduced Thursday, titled the Stop WALMART Act, Sanders is following essentially the same strategy that drove Amazon to say it would raise the starting pay in its fulfillment centers.

“You have the wealthiest family in the United States, worth $180 billion,” Sanders told HuffPost, referring to the Waltons, who own a majority stake in Walmart. “They’re paying workers starvation wages.”

The Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, introduced by Sanders in September, would punish large companies for paying workers poorly enough that they qualify for welfare programs. The shorter version of its name, Stop BEZOS Act, pointed the finger directly at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

The Walmart bill ― more formally, the Stop Welfare for Any Large Monopoly Amassing Revenue from Taxpayers Act ― also ties one high-profile company to an unsavory practice. In this case, it’s stock buybacks, which have surged this year in the wake of the big corporate tax cut that Republicans passed last December.

And again the goal is to increase the lowest paid workers’ wages. Under the proposal, large companies would not be allowed to buy back their own stock unless all their workers earned at least $15 per hour and their CEOS earned no more than 150 times what their median employee earned.

A Walmart spokesman said the starting pay for its store employees is at least $11 per hour, and more in certain markets. “We have increased our starting wages by more than 50 percent in the last three years,” the company said in a statement, adding that its average hourly compensation is $17.50 when benefits like health care are taken into account.

A lot of employers have begun to pay higher wages as the economy has improved over the last few years, forcing companies to compete more for workers. In the cases of both Amazon and Walmart, it’s hard to tell how much their pay hikes are due to company strategy or public pressure or simply market forces. The higher minimum wages being mandated by cities and states are also a factor.

Though the new Sanders bill highlights Walmart in its title, the legislation would apply to any company that meets the criteria it lays out. The bill is unlikely to become law, mainly because Republicans still control the Senate and the White House.

But not even Democrats necessarily go along with Sanders’ message bills ― not a single senator co-sponsored his Amazon legislation. Some liberals have even argued that the Stop BEZOS Act would make for bad public policy if it passed. (“My think tank friends,” Sanders said Wednesday.)

Stock buybacks have earned much liberal ire this year, as corporate cash has been funneled to shareholders instead of workers. Reducing the supply of a corporation’s stock on the market inflates its value and typically benefits the company’s executives, who are paid at least partially in stock and receive bonuses based on stock performance.

Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who introduced companion legislation in the House, pointed out that stock buybacks were not even totally legal before a 1982 decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission. “People weren’t allowed to engage in manipulation of stock to enrich shareholders and to enrich executives,” he said.

Though Sanders wants both Walmart and Amazon to pay at least $15 per hour, the huge chain’s front-line retail jobs are fundamentally different from the online giant’s fulfillment center jobs. The latter tend to be more physically demanding and come with higher pay. The median materials moving worker earned $14.78 per hour in 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the median retail sales employee made just $11.24.

That difference doesn’t faze Sanders. “Last I heard, whether you work in a warehouse or you work anyplace else, you got to eat, you got to put a roof over your head,” he said.