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.
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.”