In Rogers, Bernie Sanders Slams Walmart's 'Starvation Wages'

In Rogers, Bernie Sanders Slams Walmart's 'Starvation Wages'
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) speaks to reporters in Rogers after presenting a proposal at Wednesday's Walmart Inc. business meeting. (Marty Cook)

ROGERS — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, criticized Walmart Inc. of Bentonville for paying its employees "starvation wages" during his presentation in support of an employee-filed resolution at the retailers' shareholders' meeting Wednesday at the Hammons Center in Rogers.

The resolution would allow an hourly employee to be considered for election to the company's board of directors. Sanders, a Democratic candidate for the 2020 presidential nomination, was given three minutes to address the meeting in support of the resolution. But he also urged Walmart to raise its hourly wage to $15 an hour.

"The issue we are dealing with today is pretty simple: Walmart is the largest private employer in America and is owned by the Walton Family, the wealthiest family in the United States worth approximately $175 billion," Sanders said. "In spite of the incredible wealth of its owners, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages. Wages that are so low that many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, medicaid, public housing in order to survive. 

"Frankly, the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in this country. They are also outraged by the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America, as demonstrated by the CEO of Walmart making 1,000 times more than the average Walmart employee."

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon received a total compensation package of $23.6 million in fiscal 2018, according to a proxy statement the company filed in April with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission. (The figure includes stock awards that have not yet been earned or paid.) McMillon's compensation to the median associate's annual pay of $21,952 was a 1,076-to-1 ratio.

McMillion addressed the shareholders and media shortly before Sanders' remarks, highlighting what Walmart had done for its employees. Those actions included raising its minimum wage to $11, investing more than $4.5 billion in pay raises in addition to annual raises and starting a $1 a day college plan for workers.

Most pointedly, McMillon addressed the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and who needed to fix that.

"It is clear by our actions and those of other companies that the federal minimum wage is lagging behind; $7.25 [an hour] is too low," McMillon said. "It's time for Congress to put a thoughtful plan in place to increase the minimum wage. Any plan put should take into account phasing and cost of living differences to avoid unintended consequences."

About 100 protesters lined the street just outside the Hammons Center with signs in support of Sanders and the wage increase or criticism of Walmart. After he finished his presentation inside, Sanders addressed the crowd in a shaded spot next to the parking lot and hit many of the same talking points he had used during the Walmart meeting. The crowd booed mention of the Waltons' wealth and cheered the $15 wage. 

Sanders said that a $15 hourly wage wasn't "radical" because other companies — competitors of Walmart including Amazon, Costco and Target — had instituted similar pay raises for their employees. He said given Walmart's reported net income of about $6.7 billion in fiscal 2019, McMillon's pay and the company's plan to spend $20 billion buying back stock to the benefit of its wealthy shareholders, then the company had enough capital to pay its workers more.

"Today with the passage of this resolution, Walmart can strike a blow against corporate greed and a grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that exists in our country," Sanders said.

Rachel Brand, Walmart's executive vice president of global governance, led the meeting and thanked Sanders for his insight but reiterated that Walmart's board did not support the resolution.

"While we don't support this particular proposal, the importance of listening to and investing in our associates was reflected in Doug's remarks," Brand said.

McMillon said he had attended his first shareholders' meeting 35 years ago when he was 16 because his father, a dentist, had bought shares of the company. 

"I've never been more prouder of this company and of our associates," McMillon said. "We're not perfect but together we are listening and we're learning and we're changing. We love the challenge of helping our associates pursue their dreams through the opportunities Walmart creates. This is a company you can be proud to invest in."

Walmart reported after the meeting that all three of the day's shareholder proposals were defeated. Shareholders approved the election of each of Walmart's 12 director nominees, the compensation of Walmart's named executive officers and the appointment of Ernst & Young LLP as Walmart's independent accountant.

Walmart will hold the second part of its annual meeting Friday at Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

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