OUR Walmart Crashes the Party

What happens when you talk about workers’ rights during a shareholders meeting?

Ethan Corey

OUR Walmart member Charmaine Givens-Thomas advocates for an independent chairman during the June 6 Walmart shareholders meeting. (Courtesy of OUR Walmart)

Cor­po­rate share­hold­er meet­ings aren’t a place one typ­i­cal­ly hears argu­ments for work­ers’ rights. But in between upbeat per­for­mances by big-name pop artists and puffed-up speech­es by Walmart’s top brass, that’s just what hap­pened dur­ing Walmart’s annu­al share­hold­er meet­ing in Fayet­teville, Arkansas, in June.

'Something is wrong when the richest family in America pays hundreds of thousands of associates so little they cannot survive without public assistance and the charity of co-workers.'

The labor group OUR Wal­mart—which had staged a week of protests lead­ing up to the meet­ing — gained access to the fes­tiv­i­ties via the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Team­sters Gen­er­al Fund, which holds stock in the com­pa­ny. In part­ner­ship with the Team­sters, OUR Wal­mart intro­duced a share­hold­er res­o­lu­tion call­ing for an inde­pen­dent chair­man to replace Rob Wal­ton — the eldest son of Wal­mart founder Sam Wal­ton and the 12th-rich­est per­son in the world. Activists hope that an inde­pen­dent chair­man will enhance the Wal­mart Board’s accountability.

While the pro­pos­al failed dur­ing pre­lim­i­nary vot­ing — the Wal­tons col­lec­tive­ly own the major­i­ty of Wal­mart stock, giv­ing them an effec­tive veto over share­hold­er res­o­lu­tions — it gave activists the chance to speak to share­hold­ers about the low wages and poor work­ing con­di­tions they face.

“[Wal­mart asso­ciates] cre­ate enor­mous wealth for Wal­mart share­hold­ers, includ­ing the Wal­ton fam­i­ly, the rich­est fam­i­ly in Amer­i­ca,” said Char­maine Givens-Thomas, who works at a Wal­mart store in Ever­green Park, Illi­nois, and trav­eled to Fayet­teville for the meet­ing. Some­thing is wrong when the rich­est fam­i­ly in Amer­i­ca pays hun­dreds of thou­sands of asso­ciates so lit­tle they can­not sur­vive with­out pub­lic assis­tance and the char­i­ty of co-workers.”

Givens-Thomas also not­ed that many stores have strug­gled to keep their shelves ful­ly stocked, con­tribut­ing to a five-quar­ter decline in same-store sales—evi­dence, she argued, that poor­ly paid work­ers cause cus­tomer ser­vice to suffer.

Despite the dis­ap­point­ing results of the share­hold­er vote, the asso­ciates did score one vic­to­ry: Con­front­ed by a group of approx­i­mate­ly 20 OUR Wal­mart mem­bers after the meet­ing, McMil­lon agreed to lis­ten to Wal­mart asso­ciates air their expe­ri­ences and con­cerns then and there.

In a pub­lic state­ment, OUR Wal­mart was cau­tious­ly opti­mistic: While we hope this is the begin­ning a new direc­tion for Wal­mart, work­ers need to have a full and sub­stan­tive con­ver­sa­tion with him and know that when they raise con­cerns they won’t face retaliation.” 

Ethan Corey is a writer and researcher based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Rolling Stone and MEL magazine.
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