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Civil rights leader Barber presses Walmart to ‘uplift’ employees during shareholders meeting

The anti-poverty advocate called for new worker initiatives and a $15 minimum wage during the retailer’s annual event

Walmart is the country's largest private employer, with 1.6 million U.S. workers. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
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Walmart shareholders shot down employee safety and wage initiatives on Wednesday despite a prominent civil rights activist’s insistence that the retailer has a responsibility to “uplift the voices” of employees living in poverty.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, noting the coronavirus outbreak’s disproportionate toll on Black Americans, pressed Walmart to create a worker-led committee on pandemic issues and raise its starting wage to $15 an hour.

“Perhaps thousands of your workers suffered with this disease, spread it to family members, or had to endure terrifying isolation, gasping for breath, all because they were too poor to stay home from work, too afraid of retaliation to get the time off, too beaten down by this system to be truly supported by this company and by our government in this dire hour for our nation,” said Barber, chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

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The pandemic committee initiative, introduced by employee Cynthia Murray, was opposed by Walmart and voted down. The company said the measure was “unnecessary” because it had implemented ample safety and health protocols during the pandemic, including employee temperature screenings, mask requirements and as much as two weeks of paid leave for workers who need to stay home for covid-19-related reasons.

It also said employees have multiple channels, including team meetings and an ethics hotline, through which they can communicate concerns to senior management.

“We disagree with the assertions … that our response to the global health crisis failed our associates and communities,” the company said in a proxy filing. “Walmart quickly put in place new guidelines, policies, and procedures designed to protect associates and customers.”

At least 22 Walmart workers have died of covid, and more than 1,862 have been infected with the coronavirus, according to the labor advocacy group United for Respect, which invited Barber to speak. The Bentonville, Ark.-based company has more than 2.3 million employees worldwide, including 1.6 million in the United States.

Other shareholder proposals called on Walmart to reduce refrigerant emissions, fully disclose lobbying efforts and reassess its starting wage. None received enough votes to pass.

Shareholders, meanwhile, voted to pass all three company-supported proposals. They approved the nomination of 12 board directors, including Walmart chief executive Doug McMillon and former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and greenlighted pay packages for top executives, according to preliminary counts. The Walton family, including heirs of founder Sam Walton, holds about 49 percent of the company’s shares, its latest proxy filing shows.

This year’s hour-long webcast was a subdued version of what is typically a star-studded gathering of celebrities, executives and shareholders near the company’s Bentonville headquarters. Previous hosts and performers included Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Jamie Foxx and Elton John. Two years ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made waves when he singled out the company for paying workers “starvation wages” and urged it to give hourly Walmart workers a seat on the company’s board.

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On Wednesday, Barber echoed some of those views, urging the company to raise its $11 starting wage to $15, which would bring it on par with competitors including Target, Best Buy and Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Walmart, which gave raises to about one-third of its U.S. workforce this year, says average pay exceeds $15 an hour. Regulatory filings show that chief executive McMillon received a $22.6 million pay package last year, more than 1,000-fold the median wage of $20,942.

“Walmart is on the wrong side of history here,” Barber said about wages. “Do it because it’s the right thing to do. … Do it because your conscience knows that keeping people across America in poverty is wrong and repugnant.

His remarks come as the world’s largest retailer — with $559 billion in sales last year and a market cap of $397.6 billion — made racial equity and diversity a hallmark of its charitable giving. The company last year pledged $100 million to create a center for racial equity that it said would “address systemic racism in society head-on” by supporting the country’s financial, health-care, education and criminal justice systems.