BENTONVILLE, Ark. - Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders came face-to-face with Walmart's corporate leadership during the retail giant's annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday in Arkansas, where he introduced an employee proposal to put workers on the company's board and asked for a raise to its minimum wage.
Speaking as a proxy for a Walmart employee, Sanders offered the resolution -- which would be defeated in an afternoon vote -- from the floor of a small, carpeted ballroom with Rachel Brand, a top company executive and former Justice Department official, presiding onstage. After giving the formal pitch, Sanders delivered a more cutting message to Walmart officials.
"Despite the incredible wealth of its owner, 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 and public housing in order to survive," Sanders said. "Further, Walmart should give a voice to its workers by allowing them seats on the board of directors. The concerns of workers, not just stockholders should be a part of board decisions."
By visiting Arkansas, Sanders was able to directly confront Walmart's leadership and, through his aggressive use of social media, highlight his stand to Democrats angered by growing corporate profits at a time of increasing economic inequality. Sanders' 2020 campaign has sought to remind voters of his long track record as an activist, dating to the Civil Rights Era. The candidate himself has spoken occasionally on the stump about his roots in the progressive movement and support for union workers on picket lines.
With about ten seconds of his allotted three minutes to spare, Sanders again beseeched the board to pass the resolution, thanked the room, then stepped outside to applause from protesters who had been camped out in the parking lot of the John Q. Hammons Center for hours before the meeting began.
Asked after the meeting if he thought Walmart CEO Doug McMillon had received his message, Sanders was pessimistic.
"No, I don't," the Vermont senator told CNN's Ryan Nobles. "I feel like if he got the message, what he would say is we are going to do what many of our competitors are doing -- what Amazon has already done, Costco, what Target is moving toward, and raise that minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour."
McMillon in his remarks earlier in the morning called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage.
"Well, that's fine," Sanders said afterward. "(Congressional Democrats) are working on it. I led the effort in the Senate to raise the federal minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour," before noting Republican opposition. "What we need," Sanders added, "is Walmart, the largest private employer in this country, to take a bold step forward and say all of their employees should live with dignity."
Sanders has targeted a series of major corporations over the wages they pay hourly employees. Amazon raised its starting wage to $15 an hour in 2018 after coming under pressure from Sanders, who has also pressed Disney, which agreed to a deal with unions last year to raise pay for workers at California's Disneyland to $15 hourly this year and to ramp up to that figure by 2021 at Walt Disney World in Florida. Walmart's minimum wage is currently $11 an hour.
In 2018, Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna, now a campaign co-chair, introduced The Stop Walmart Act. The legislation would put a halt on stock buybacks for executives at companies who did not -- among other things -- pay a $15 minimum wage to all their employees, including part-timers and independent contractors. The bill would also ban CEOs from compensation that exceeded 150 times the median employee's salary.
McMillon was eligible to earn nearly $24 million last year, more than a thousand times his employees' median total. Sanders' progressive allies -- including one presidential primary rival -- have been circling the issue alongside him for years.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren's Accountable Capitalism Act, citing German law, would require 40% of board members at large corporations be chosen by their employees. And Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin's Reward Work Act would also tighten restrictions on stock buybacks and require that companies "give workers the right to directly elect one-third of their company's board of directors."
Walmart had been publicly welcoming of Sanders ahead of the event, but in a series of tweets before the meeting Dan Bartlett, Walmart's executive vice president of corporate affairs, offered a prebuttal of the coming attack.
"We welcome @BernieSanders on his campaign stop to Northwest Arkansas. Here are a few facts I'm fairly certain he won't acknowledge while describing his outdated view of Walmart," Bartlett wrote. "No other company in the U.S. is making debt-free college education accessible to more than a million people for about $1 a day. No other company has opened 200 training academies, providing enhanced workforce skill-building for hundreds of thousands just this past year. No other company has hired more than 225k veterans in the last 5 years. No other company in America has pledged to avoid emissions in the supply chain by 1 BILLION metric tons by 2030! Oh, and we're one of the largest federal income tax payers, recently contributing nearly 2% of all corporate taxes!"
Sanders campaign manager Faiz Shakir fired back with his own tweet, writing: "No, Dan, it's not Mission Accomplished for Walmart" and linking to a news story in which Bartlett, who worked as an adviser to President George W. Bush, took the blame for the decision to hang the infamous banner during a speech Bush gave on an aircraft carrier in May 2003, shortly after the US invasion of Iraq.
In an interview Tuesday as he made his way down to Arkansas, Sanders explained why he believed the proposal deserved special attention.
Putting workers on the Walmart board is "enormously important because at the end of the day, working people have got to have some control over how they spend at least eight hours a day," Sanders said in an interview. "They cannot simply be cogs in a machine. To be a human being means that you have some ability to control your life. And that includes your work life."
Dreama Lovett, a full-time employee from Jacksonville, Florida, and part of United for Respect, a Walmart worker's group, said she hasn't yet decided on who she'll back in the 2020 presidential race, but welcomed Sanders and talked up the benefits of putting her hourly wage-making colleagues on the corporate board.
"We're glad to have (Sanders) because he speaks for the working people and we just feel the need that one of the associates on the board would make a change in the playing field, to where we can communicate better with the board and the employees that represent Walmart," said Lovett, who has worked for the company for about three years and told CNN she makes $11.72 an hour.
"Could you live off of $11-and-something an hour? It's hard, especially in our economy. It's up and we're booming," she added. "But when you're making that wage, it's really hard. You can't hardly find a place to rent for 700-800 bucks. So if you make $11 an hour, could you imagine trying to pay your rent and your bills with that. It's tough."
In line for the meeting, Pat Copp, a shareholder for three decades and retired business administrator from Indiana, defended Walmart's businesses practices and talked up the company's recent moves to raise its minimum hourly wage. She called Sanders' visit a political stunt and said she didn't like "his philosophies or thoughts, whatever you want to call them. I disagree with him totally."
But Copp, who did not work at Walmart, added that she was not opposed to one key part of the plan Sanders would talk up only an hour later.
"I don't know how large the board is, but to have input from the workers in some way -- I think that would be good," she said. "A lot of time top management is so removed from the ground level, they really don't know what's going on."
CNN's Ryan Nobles and Nathaniel Meyersohn contributed to this report
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