At Walmart’s shareholder meeting last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders presented a proposal on behalf of Walmart associate Cat Davis, asking for hourly employees to be included among the nominees for board seats.
“Today, with the passage of this resolution, Walmart can strike a blow against corporate greed and the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that exists in our country,” Sanders said in the three minutes allotted to him. “Please do the right thing. Please pass this resolution.”
About 92% of outstanding Walmart shares were present at the meeting or represented by proxy. Less than 0.01% supported the resolution.
In an email on Wednesday, a Walmart spokesperson noted the company has “invested billions of dollars in our associates and have increased our U.S. starting wages by more than 50% over the past four years.” He also said associates have “told us [pay is] just one part of the equation,” and the retailer has added other benefits at their behest including paid time off, advanced job training, paid family leave of 16 weeks for birth mothers, an adoption benefit of $5,000 per child and an education program that helps associates earn a degree for $1 a day. As a result, Walmart has reduced its U.S. store associate turnover by 10% in the last year.
However, the same day the employee proposals failed, Walmart announced associates are getting new “modernized” vests made from recycled bottles with “a pop of color that’s very visible in a busy store” and bigger pockets to “carry all the equipment they need to do their jobs on the sales floor.”
The vests will include multiple trim color options, which vary by location, role and personal preference. (Although employees will have to foot the bill for personalization.)
Walmart declined to say anything further, pointing to CEO Doug McMillon’s comments at the shareholder meeting. Sanders did not respond. Davis was not available.
"We should have the power to decide what happens at the company many of us have given our working lives to.”
— United for Respect (@forrespect) June 5, 2019
Davis is also a leader of the labor rights group United for Respect, which submitted another proposal at the meeting to strengthen Walmart’s sexual harassment policy. (It, too, failed, but had support from 10% of shares present or represented by proxy.)
A spokesperson for Davis’s group called the new vests “intentional misdirection.”
“We were also hearing about how associates who came to the meeting got tablets. [We] were saying, ‘What would be great is a $15-an-hour base wage and corporate board seats,’” she said. “It’s misdirection to give the impression that they are a good employer.”
The Walmart spokesperson, however, called this a “fun moment for our associates” and “a small thing we can do to appreciate our associates in addition to our $4 billion investment in four years in increased pay, expanded health benefits and training.”
That being said, it wasn’t a huge surprise their proposals did not pass. The spokesperson said employee-filed resolutions have not historically gotten much support at these meetings given how much of the company is controlled by the Walton family. Instead, she said the intent is to shed light on policy failures.
“[Davis] has been at the company for a long time and is in contact with associates, and the conversation has always been how decision makers at the top do not look like or experience the same things that associates on the floor level do,” she added. “There are issues with wages, benefits … workplace issues … how does that get reflected at the top? … Not a single one of the board directors understands the lived experience of hourly associates.”
Shareholders did, however, overwhelmingly approve the compensation of five executive officers, who, for the fiscal year that ended January 31, 2019, made nearly $69 million. According to the 111-page proxy statement, CEO Doug McMillon’s total annual compensation was more than $23.6 million of that total, compared to $22,000 for the median associate.
Sanders used this discrepancy—in which the CEO makes nearly 1,100 times more than the average employee—to illustrate his point about income inequality.
The Vermont senator, who has a petition asking Walmart to pay its employees a living wage and features Walmart worker stories on YouTube, also introduced the Stop Walmart Act with Representative Ro Khanna in November 2018. The act proposes paying employees $15 per hour, allowing them to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave and ensuring CEO compensation is not more than 150 times the median pay of employees.
“Thank you, Sen. Sanders for your presentation and viewpoint,” said Rachel Brand, evp of global governance and corporate secretary, after his speech. “While we don’t support this particular proposal, the importance of listening to and investing in our associates was reflected in [McMillon’s] remarks.”
Indeed, McMillion pointed to increases in wages in recent years along with other Walmart benefits like bonuses, education incentives and low-cost healthcare plans, but he said the minimum wage is ultimately up to the government.
“It’s clear by our actions and those of other companies that the federal minimum wage is lagging behind. $7.25 is too low,” McMillon said. “It’s time for Congress to put a thoughtful plan in place to increase the minimum wage.”
The United for Respect spokesperson called his comments “kind of embarrassing,” noting he could have set an example for the rest of corporate America.
“Instead, he chose a legislative fix,” she said.
When Walmart is proactive about taking care of its workforce, the spokesperson said, other retailers follow suit. For example, after Walmart bumped up its base wage to $11 per hour last year, Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour for all employees, including those of subsidiaries like Whole Foods; Target then said it is raising its minimum wage to $13 per hour, and to $15 per hour by the end of 2020. More recently, Target also announced expanded backup care for employees with children and elderly relatives and extended time off under its paid family leave policy, and it doubled its reimbursement for adoption or surrogacy.
Walmart, on the other hand, said it already pays its employees “well above the minimum” with “the average total compensation and benefits for [full-time and part-time] hourly associates [exceeding] $17.50 an hour.”
The spokesperson also said the company will continue to raise its wages by market to be competitive with the retail industry, adding, “When you consider our wages in the broader context of benefits—including programs that pay for our associates’ college degrees, parental leave, protected PTO, a fixed scheduling program and more—we know we have a competitive offering.”
Update (June 12, 2019): This story has been updated to include comments from Walmart.