Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting had an unusual guest in attendance on Wednesday. On behalf of Cat Davis, an hourly employee, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a floor resolution to raise the company’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and appoint some associates to the corporation’s powerful shareholder board. “Walmart is the largest private employer in America and is owned by the Walton family, the wealthiest family in the United States,” Sanders told shareholders, as reported by the Daily Beast. “And yet despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages.”
Sanders appeared at the behest of Walmart associates organized by United for Respect. In a press release, the group called Davis’s floor resolution “the first of its kind submitted by an hourly employee calling for representation on a corporation’s board.” The group announced that it had also successfully included a proposal to improve sexual-harassment policies in Walmart’s proxy statement for this year.
Kristi Branstetter, who identified herself as a seven-year Walmart associate with a disability, told New York on Wednesday that she supported United for Respect’s floor resolutions and was glad to have Sanders’s support. “I’m here because corporate doesn’t seem to understand the needs of people with disabilities,” she said. Workers “need someone at the top” who understands their needs, she added, noting that associates have the benefit of knowing what’s going on in their individual stores. On the subject of sexual harassment, she said, “I don’t think the policy that Walmart has is strong enough.”
Walmart recently raised its minimum wage to $11 an hour, but that hasn’t quashed associates’ years-old complaints about pay and a variety of working conditions. In 2014, the company paid $363,419 to settle a sexual-harassment and retaliation lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission; four years later, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund helped a Walmart employee sue the company over sexual harassment. Two years ago, A Better Balance, a workers’ advocacy group, accused Walmart of systematically discriminating against sick and pregnant employees. And earlier this year, Walmart cut greeter positions at 1,000 stores and replaced them with customer hosts. The decision disproportionately affected employees with disabilities; the role of greeter was an accessible position, whereas the role of customer host is more physically demanding. After an outcry, Walmart decided that greeters with disabilities “would be given longer than the customary 60 days to find other jobs in the company,” as the Associated Press reported.
Wednesday’s shareholder meeting is not the first time Sanders has criticized Walmart for its labor practices. Sanders previously introduced the Stop WALMART Act, which would prevent corporations the size of Walmart from authorizing stock buybacks for shareholders unless they pay employees at least $15 an hour, guarantee seven days of paid sick leave, and cap CEO pay at no more than 150 times that of median employee pay. He’s now one of several Democratic presidential candidates to demonstrate with or otherwise express support for organized low-wage workers, who typically are not unionized. In May, Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Bill de Blasio, and Jay Inslee joined striking McDonald’s workers on the picket line; Sanders streamed a live town hall with workers.
Walmart, meanwhile, looks unlikely to budge — for now. According to Politico, the corporation’s executive vice-president of global governance “swiftly dismissed” Sanders’s proposal.