The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rank-and-file workers have a lot more power over corporations than they think

The stage at Walmart's annual shareholders meeting (Walmart)
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Last Friday, Charmaine Givens-Thomas got up on stage in front of 14,000 people at Walmart's annual shareholder meeting and told her boss -- or at least, her boss's boss's boss's boss -- that she thought he should lose his job.

"We need a leader at the top who thinks only of what is best for our company, its associates and all shareholders," declared Givens-Thomas, a 61-year-old grandmother who makes $23,000 a year working in the electronics section of a store in Forest Park, Ill. "Right now, as you know, the chairman of our company is Mr. S. Robson Walton. He is not independent. We need an independent chairman."

The darkened audience flickered green with flashing headbands, and Givens-Thomas read intently from her speech on a piece of rumpled paper -- with Rob Walton himself sitting not far away.

"I had a little conversation with myself," Givens-Thomas said in an interview later. "I said, 'you have a right to be here, what you have to say is important.' "

It's true that she had a right to be there: Givens-Thomas actually owns a piece of the company. Unlike thousands of the other Walmart employees out there in the Bud Walton Arena, whom the company had handpicked from around the world and flown in to Fayetteville, Ark., for the festive event, Givens-Thomas is a shareholder. That was her ticket to the stage, where she spoke on behalf of a resolution that would require an independent chairman, rather than a member of the Walton family.

The resolution failed, as will all resolutions that the Waltons don't agree with, because they hold a voting majority of the stock. Still, Givens-Thomas represents a kind of power that's vastly underutilized in American corporations: Employees who are also shareholders, granting them a voice in many of their own employer's decisions.

Walmart -- starting with Sam Walton himself -- has long encouraged employees to become part-owners of the company, through a plan that matches 15 percent of the first $1,800 worth of stock any employee purchases. Until the 2000s, it also included company stock as an option for retirement accounts. Walmart won't say how much of its workforce has participated over the years. Overall, the National Opinion Research Center has estimated that 18 percent of private-sector employees hold stock in companies where they work, theoretically creating a voting bloc with a particular perspective on the company's direction.

But Givens-Thomas' group of worker-shareholders at this year's meeting was very small -- the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which is helping to organize them, has a contact list of only about 100 -- and few of those who do own stock ever engage with the governance process. That's typical; individual employee-shareholders rarely exercise their right to participate. A handful of them supported proxy resolutions at other companies this year -- T-Mobile and Kellogg, for example -- but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

There are a few reasons for that.

One: While shareholder resolutions have surged in recent years, mostly driven by large investment funds, it's hard to be an activist investor when you're living on minimum wage. Givens-Thomas, a daughter of a domestic worker and a steel worker and who never finished college, has no access to the capital markets other than the shares she's bought through the payroll deductions that -- bit by bit -- build up small piles of equity (sometimes, she says, she has to sell back shares just to make it to her next paycheck). And for many rank-and-file workers, learning how everything works can be a daunting proposition.

"They don't know how to vote," says Mary Pat Tifft, a Walmart employee-shareholder in Kenosha, Wis., who started buying stock in the early 1990s. "Nobody shows them what to do with the ballots they're getting." (Walmart says that it circulated a video on the company's intranet about how to vote.)

Tifft has held a couple of "proxy parties" to help colleagues work through the resolutions, but they never took off nationwide; staff turnover is so high that it's hard to educate every new person who buys stock.

The second reason: The Securities and Exchange Commission doesn't allow many of the issues that are most pertinent to workers' standards of living to qualify as resolutions. While executive compensation, environmental impact and political participation are considered fair game, matters of "ordinary business" -- such as wages and scheduling -- are likely to be disqualified.

That may be a large part of the reason shareholder activism by labor unions contributes to overall stock performance but doesn't benefit workers themselves, according to a 2009 study.

Sometimes, though, just offering a resolution can lead to results, even if it doesn't make it to the proxy statement. One regarding Walmart's treatment of pregnant workers helped push the company to change its policy, rather than face a damaging lawsuit or public embarrassment.

And the third reason: Although Walmart activists have tried to make the case that understaffing and poor treatment of workers leads to lackluster sales, that message hasn't yet resonated with the large, institutional shareholders with more leverage over company leadership. Sometimes, that's just because it's hard to get information about worker issues in the first place, since companies aren't required to disclose much about them.

"In terms of the hierarchy of environmental, social and governance issues that make it to the front of investor attention, worker equity is close to the bottom," says Heather Lang, director of institutional relations at the consultancy Sustainalytics, which promotes sustainable and responsible investing. "Even human rights issues, and the supply chain and local communities where companies might be operating overseas, get more attention than those involving direct local employees."

There is, however, a way in which employee shareholders can become more powerful: Form an association that takes positions, like any large pension fund or asset manager. It's happened in places like France, where Renault's employees are a powerful force, and Japan, where an association of Tokyo Electric workers is now the company's fifth-biggest shareholder.

That's why Joseph Blasi, a professor at Rutgers University's School of Management and Labor Relations who has co-authored a new book on employee stock ownership, thinks that workers have more power than they realize.

"It's entirely latent, but the employee shareholder role is as latent as the general shareholder role on resolutions was a decade ago," Blasi says. "The sleeping shareholders are going to wake up. All they need is an Internet site and people courageous enough to run it."

Still, Givens-Thomas isn't banking on participation as a shareholder to ultimately improve conditions for Walmart workers. She continues to organize through OUR Walmart, an outfit backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers that has kept their issues on the map, and fought for higher state and federal minimum wages.

And besides, beyond an avenue for activism, Givens-Thomas is also just hoping her Walmart stock could be an investment in her future -- if the company performs better than it has been. "I buy shares in Walmart because I want to see the company do well and be the great company they can be," she says.

At the moment, though, her low salary has kept her from building up much of a nest egg at all. "I do have some plans, but I haven't seen any action toward it. So my retirement is looking rather gloomy."