Walmart executives spent a majority of time during the no-frills shareholder business meeting touting progress made in raising worker wages more than 50% and the $4.5 billion in additional pay to hourly workers in the past four years. The gathering was held amidst a group of anti-Walmart protestors gathered outside the John Q. Hammons Center on Wednesday (June 5).
The big attraction of the meeting was the attendance of U.S. Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who read a proposal from United For Respect, a shareholder group asking Walmart to consider a $15 starting wage and allowing an hourly worker a seat on the retailer’s board of directors.
Walmart Board Chairman Greg Penner welcomed Sanders to the event saying, “We are always honored when a member of Congress takes the time to join us.” A short video showed ahead of the meeting also touted the company’s effort to raise wages, expand benefits and the $1 per day college degree program that 7,500 employees have joined. The video also had clips of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama thanking Walmart for raising the quality of affordable food and also raising starting wages.
Walmart CEO Doug McMillon also welcomed Sanders to the business meeting attended by about 200 people. He said Walmart will continue to invest in its people and technology because without it the retailer would likely perish. He said those who fail to adapt will struggle to survive and he’s most impressed by the Walmart workforce to adapt to change and grow.
“This has been truly amazing to me,” McMillon said. “The best way to serve our customers is to create shared value between all our stakeholders. We have a sound business … the investments for future growth have impacted earnings in the short term.”
He said Walmart has promoted 215,000 in its workforce in the past four years, and 57% of those promotions went to women. McMillon said the federal minimum wage has lagged behind and he urged Congress to do more to raise it to reflect living expenses in various parts of the country. McMillon also talked about the company’s sustainability progress and efforts to improve ethics and compliance around the world.
“I came to my first shareholder meeting when I was 16. I came with my dad, a dentist, who saved up to buy some Walmart stock,” he shared.
McMillon said he learned from Sam Walton the value of the people who make the company run day in and day out.
“We are not perfect, but together we are listening and we are changing This is a company you can be proud to invest in,” McMillon concluded.
Rachel Brand, corporate secretary at Walmart, managed the formal business meeting that included the reading of two shareholder proposals and a brief description of three company proposals to elect a slate of 12 directors, approve executive compensation and ratify the appointment of Ernst & Young as the company’s certified public accountant. All three of those proposals are expected to pass, given the Walton family and insiders hold a majority of the voting rights.
The two outside shareholder proposals read at the meeting asked Walmart to consider a stronger policy for sexual harassment. Paula Curtis, a Walmart employee for 19 years and a member of United For Respect, said she has seen sexual harassment from support managers at the store level. She said United for Respect surveyed 1,000 female workers on this issue and 48% said they are concerned about sexual harassment. The one incident she described involved a support manager who was simply transferred to a different store when the complaint arose.
“This is not right, Mr. McMillon. We know harassment is happening at Walmart, what are we going to do about it?” Curtis asked.
The proposal calls for Walmart to track complaints and hold managers accountable and bring harassment out of the shadows. Brand said Walmart does not support the proposal but said the company takes seriously any misconduct that is reported.
Sanders read the other United For Respect proposal urging Walmart to pay a minimum of $15 per hour like competitors Target, Costco and Amazon, and also give employees a seat on the board of directors.
“Walmart is the largest private employer in the country and it pays many employees starvation wages forcing them to rely on aid and taxpayer help,” he said.
Sanders added if Walmart’s CEO can earn 1,000 times the average worker’s pay — McMillon’s salary was $23.61 million in fiscal year 2019 — then the company can surely afford to raise the minimum wage.
“This is not a radical idea,” he said.
Brand thanked Sanders for his remarks and said Walmart does not support the proposal. Walmart has said that combining benefits and the average starting pay is roughly $17 per hour, and $20 an hour for full-time employees. The company also said it will continue to expand the benefits package which should not be ignored when discussing wages.