Sanders takes his fight for minimum wages at Walmart meeting asks CEO to pay employees a living salary

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders condemned executives and owners of Walmart for paying what he called “starvation wages” and lent his support to workers

Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders

CJ Atkins/IPA

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., took his fight against corporate greed and inequality into the den of the most anti-union retailer in the nation on June 5 —Walmart. Appearing on the floor of the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Rogers, Arkansas, Sanders blasted executives and owners for paying what he called “starvation wages” and lent his support to Walmart workers’ campaign to secure a seat on the board of directors.

Sanders got inside the meeting thanks to the efforts of United for Respect, an organization of low-income workers, largely led by women of color, that is fighting to improve working conditions in the retail industry. United for Respect leader Cat Davis, who is a Walmart employee, made the proposal for worker representation and gave her proxy to Sanders so he could confront the company’s top officers.

Speaking directly to CEO Doug McMillon and the other assembled execs, Sanders shamed the company for paying wages “so low that many employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing to survive.” He pointed out that when so many of its workers have to rely on public assistance because their paychecks are too small, it amounts to a government handout for Walmart. “Frankly, the American people,” he said, “are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in the country.”

Channeling the growing public anger over grotesque income inequality, Sanders drew attention to the fact that CEO McMillon is paid 1,000 times more than the average Walmart store employee. He also questioned why the company could afford to shovel cash back to shareholders but not pay its workers more.

“Last year, Walmart made $10 billion in profit and paid its CEO over $20 million in compensation, and it has authorized $20 billion in stock buybacks, which will benefit its wealthiest stockholders,” he charged. Stock buybacks, in which a company re-purchases shares of its own stock, are generally aimed at cutting the number of shares in circulation on the stock market and driving up the price of those remaining, thus increasing the value of stocks held by company owners.

Sanders said that with so much surplus profit, “Surely…Walmart can afford to pay its employees a living wage of at least $15 per hour.” He reminded the company that many of its retail competitors, including Costco, Amazon, and Target, are already moving in that direction while Walmart sticks to a starting wage of only $11.

Returning again to the pitch for putting workers’ representatives on the board, Sanders said that “the concerns of workers, not just stockholders” should be a part of every company decision. The proposal for worker representation on the Walmart board is in line with the recent addition of plans for worker ownership and control of firms to his presidential platform. Though worker representation on corporate boards is common in Germany and some other European countries, no American corporation has workers on its board

Attempting to shame shareholders into action, Sanders closed his remarks to the meeting by saying that if they passed the resolution, “Walmart can strike a blow against corporate greed

When Walmart Vice President Rachel Brand rose to speak next, she simply thanked Sanders for attending and making his resolution before responding, “We don’t support it.”

Having summarily dismissed a proposal to give their employees more say in the decisions that affect their jobs and their lives without the least bit of emotion, Walmart’s top shareholders then proceeded with their business.

Also on the agenda for the gathering is another proposal made by employees, this one aimed at improving protections against sexual harassment on the job in Walmart’s more than 5,000 stores in the U.S. The meeting is expected to reject this idea as well.

Sanders, the members of United for Respect, and the rest of the Arkansas activists gathered at the meeting site kept up the pressure, however. Sanders walked out of the convention hall and immediately continued his indictment, addressing a diverse rally of workers demanding a $15 minimum wage.

Among them were a number of Walmart employees, particularly Black and Latina women, who had the proper proxy paperwork to attend the meeting but had been shut out by company staff. According to one activist on the scene who interviewed some of those denied entry, they believed there was profiling at work. One woman, Kayshinea James, who traveled to Arkansas from New Orleans, said she and around 20 others were sent to an alternate line to have their papers re-checked before the morning session began, but they were never let in.

Sheltered under a tree from the Arkansas sun, Sanders reminded those in attendance of just how extreme the inequality is that they’re fighting at Walmart. The Walton family, which are the primary owners of Walmart, earn $25,000 a minute, compared to the average Walmart employee who works a whole year to make the same $25,000. “This company, owned by the wealthiest family in America, can afford $15 an hour.”

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