Bernie Sanders brings battle against 'greed' inside Walmart shareholders' meeting

The presidential candidate, who's blasted the retail giant for paying employees "starvation wages," told company execs they should spread the wealth.
Image: Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign event, on May 30 in Las Vegas.John Locher / AP file

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By Dareh Gregorian

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who's long accused Walmart of paying its employees "starvation wages," urged the company's top executives at the retail giant's annual shareholders' meeting on Wednesday to "do the right thing" and pay workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

"The issue we're dealing with here today is pretty simple," the Vermont senator said at the meeting in Rogers, Arkansas, near the company's headquarters. He noted that Walmart "is the largest private employer in America" and its owners, the Waltons, are the richest family in the country, worth approximately $175 billion.

"Despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages, wages that are so low than many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive," Sanders said, adding "the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in the country."

The 2020 presidential candidate said those same people "are also outraged by the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America, as demonstrated by the CEO of Walmart making 1000 times more than the average employee."

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who made $24 million in 2018, was in attendance, but his reaction could not be seen on a livestream of the meeting.

While Sanders is not a Walmart shareholder, he was able to address the meeting after being named a proxy by shareholder Cat Davis, a Walmart employee, and with the help of workers' rights organization United for Respect.

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Sanders urged passage of a resolution that would raise the company's minimum wage — which is currently $11 an hour — and see workers appointed to the board of directors.

The wage hike, he said, is "not radical," noting that "many of Walmart's major competitors" have "already moved in that direction." That would include Amazon, which agreed to hike wages after prodding from Sanders.

"Please do the right thing," Sanders said.

Walmart's executive vice president of global governance, Rachel Brand, said that "while we don't support this resolution," some of the issues raised by Sanders would be addressed later.

Walmart Chairman Greg Penner spoke shortly before Sanders, and pointed out his attendance at the meeting.

"It's always notable when a U.S. senator comes to visit us, and I want to welcome Sen. Sanders today," Penner said.

McMillon spoke after Penner, and also noted Sanders' presence. He talked about various programs and benefits the company offers to employees, and suggested a raise in the minimum wage should come from Washington.

"It's time for Congress to put a thoughtful plan in place to increase the minimum wage. Any plan should take into account phasing and cost of living differences to avoid unintended consequences," McMillon said.

Sanders introduced a bill in November called the Stop Walmart Act which would prevent large companies from buying back stock unless they offered a $15 minimum wage and capped CEO pay. He stepped up his criticism of the company in recent days, including tweeting shortly before the meeting started that, "The greed of companies like Walmart at the expense of working people will end."

He's also tweeted five campaign-produced videos from Walmart workers using the hashtag #EndWalmartGreed.

The resolution championed by Sanders did not pass — it got less than .01 percent of the shares present at the meeting, the company said.

After the meeting, Sanders brushed off criticism that the appearance was a veiled campaign stop.

"Check my record. I’ve been doing this stuff for my whole life," Sanders told NBC News.

In a statement issued before Sanders' appearance, Walmart said it hoped he would use the experience "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.”

Shaquille Brewster and Gary Grumbach contributed.