As Walmart prepares to hold its shareholder meeting on June 1 in Bentonville, Arkansas, a group of the company’s workers intensified their campaign for respect and corporate accountability.
During the last two weeks, the workers and their supporters have confronted Walmart senior executives and board members demanding answers about the poor treatment of Walmart workers and serious ethical lapses by the company’s top executives. Two groups, Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) and Making Change at Walmart, both affiliated with United Food and Commercial Workers, have organized and led the confrontations.
When the shareholders convene, they will vote on a resolution sponsored by four Walmart worker-shareholders, active in OUR. The resolution, known as proposal #6, calls for the board of directors to re-examine senior executive compensation policies that produce bloated salaries and unwise business decisions.
“When I talk to my co-workers and fellow shareholders, everyone agrees we need to hold Walmart’s executives more accountable,” said Carlton Smith, one of the proposal’s sponsors. ISS, the largest proxy advisory group in the US, has advised its clients to support proposal #6.
Worker-activists like Smith also think that Walmart needs to clean house at the top of the organization, especially now that reports about their role in a bribery scandal involving Walmart executives in Mexico and government officials has come to light.
“Walmart’s current leaders have lost our trust,” Smith said. As a result, OUR and Making Change have called for the removal of seven members of Walmart’s board of directors: Jim Walton, Rob Walton, H. Lee Scott, Jr., Michelle Burns, CEO Michael Duke, Gregory Penner, and Christopher J. Williams.
On Thursday, May 31, the two groups led a march on Walmart headquarters in Washington DC. The day before, they were in New York City to confront Rob Walton, an heir to Sam Walton who founded the retail giant.
Last week, the Walmart workers were joined by members of the Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN) in a demonstration outside the annual meeting of Goldman Sachs. Demonstrators demanded the resignation of Walmart board member Michelle Burns, who also sits on the board of Goldman Sachs and leads its audit committee.
Burns was on the Walmart audit committee during bribery scandal in Mexico, and the New York Times reported that several Goldman shareholders cited her role in the scandal as the reason they objected to her leading the investment firm’s audit committee.
The campaign to remove Burns and the other six board members mentioned above has picked up momentum. ISS and Glass Lewis, another proxy advisory group, have both advised clients to vote against the seven. The Massachusetts state pension fund, the New York pension fund, the California Public Employees Retirement System, the California State Teachers Retirement System, the Florida State Board of Administration, and the Connecticut Retirement Plan and Trust Fund have all said that they would vote against the seven.
In addition to the bribery charges, OUR and Making Change at Walmart are concerned about the impact that Walmart is having on the US economy and the way it treats its own workers.
According to Making Change, the company’s race-to-the bottom corporate culture cost the US 196,000 jobs between 2001 and 2006 as it relied more and more on imports from low-wage countries like China to provide merchandise for its shelves.
It’s impact on small businesses and local economies has also been problematic. The US Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies reported in 2009 that the entry of big box stores like Walmart often leads to the demise of nearby independent and mid-sized chain stores selling the same goods.
Walmart also treats its workers poorly. The average hourly wage of a Walmart associate is $8.81 an hour for full-time work, which Walmart considers to be 34 hours a week. That amounts to $15,500 a year, which means that many of these associates are eligible for food stamps and government health care programs.
The company in January raised health insurance premiums for full-time workers by 120 percent and stopped providing health care benefits for those who work fewer than 24 hours a week.
According to Walmart worker-activists like Barbara Collins, the way Walmart treats its workers, its negative impact on the national and local economies, and the questionable ethics of its leadership mean that change at Walmart is vital to the future of our country. “My fellow associates want to be a part of the solution and fix the problems that exist at Walmart,” Collins said.