For years, Walmart workers have attended the company’s annual shareholders meeting to call for higher wages, better benefits and more predictable schedules.
This year they’ll have someone new delivering the message on their behalf: Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The presidential candidate, who has repeatedly called on Walmart to improve its working conditions, is heading to Bentonville, Ark., on June 5 to introduce a shareholders’ proposal that would give hourly Walmart workers a seat on the company’s board.
“These workers need and deserve a seat at the table,” Sanders (I-Vt.) told The Washington Post. “If hourly workers at Walmart were well represented on its board, I doubt you would see the CEO of Walmart making over a thousand times more than its average worker."
If passed, the measure would require the retailer to consider its 1.5 million hourly U.S. employees when nominating candidates to its board, which is currently companies of a dozen wealthy executives from companies like McDonald’s and NBCUniversal.
"At a time of deepening racial and economic divide and insecurity, hourly associates can guide a more fair, inclusive and equitable corporate ecosystem that bridges differences,” the proposal says. It was filed by Walmart employee Cat Davis, who is also a leader for workers’ rights organization United for Respect.
“We really want Walmart to think about us — the lowly associates who, behind the scenes, are the ones bringing in the money,” said Davis, who works as certified pharmacy technician in New Bern, N.C.
Davis said she invited Sanders to speak at the shareholders meeting because he has supported workers in their fight for better pay and paid sick leave.
In November, Sanders introduced legislation aimed at getting Walmart to offer better pay and benefits. The “Stop Walmart Act,” would prohibit corporations from buying back their own stock — which drives up share prices and ultimately benefits shareholders — unless they pay all workers $15 an hour, offer seven days of paid sick leave and limit executive compensation to 150 times median employee pay. (Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon last year was paid $23.6 million, or 1,076 times the median Walmart worker’s salary of roughly $22,000, according to company filings.)
“Walmart is not a poor company,” Sanders said. “Workers are sick and tired of being paid poverty wages, while the Walton family is worth over $170 billion.”
The measure, though, is not likely to pass. Walmart shareholders have voted down every employee proposal in company history, according to United for Respect. The Walton family owns about half of the company’s shares, meaning it has considerable control over votes.
A spokeswoman for Walmart said the company would not comment on Davis’s proposal until it was formally presented at the meeting.
“We’re proud of the fact that 75 percent of our U.S. management associates began their career as frontline hourly associates,” the company said in a statement. “If Senator Sanders attends, we hope he will approach his visit not as a campaign stop, but as a constructive opportunity to learn about the many ways we’re working to provide increased economic opportunity, mobility and benefits to our associates — as well as our widely recognized leadership on environmental sustainability.”
Walmart’s board currently has nine men and three women, including Stephen J. Easterbrook, the chief executive of McDonald’s; Marissa Mayer, the former chief executive of Yahoo; and three members of the Walton family.
At least two other shareholder proposals will also be up for a vote during the annual meeting: one that calls on Walmart to take additional measures to prevent workplace sexual harassment, and another that would change the way shareholders vote for board members. Walmart is advising shareholders to against both, according to the company’s proxy filing.
Sanders will hardly be the only well-known personality at the company’s shareholder festivities, where surprise headliners like Katy Perry, Blake Shelton and Mariah Carey have become the norm. Thousands gather at the University of Arkansas’s Bud Walton Arena every year for the multiday event, which is part pep rally, part pop concert and includes shareholder votes on a range of matters.
Amazon last year raised its starting hourly wage to $15 an hour after Sanders introduced a bill that called on the company to pay its workers a “living wage.” (Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)