Striking Worker and Bangledesh Activist Adress Thousands at Walmart Shareholder Meeting

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FAYETTEVILLE, Arkansas – A striking retail worker and a Bangladesh labor activist today made their case from the floor of Walmart’s shareholder meeting, addressing thousands of workers and stock-owners and countering what was otherwise a highly-scripted celebration of the largest private company in the world.

Thousands of Walmart shareholders and employees settled into their seats before 7 CST this morning, nearly filling the University of Arkansas’ Bud Walton arena as a band on stage played  “We Are Family” and “I Will Survive.” An LCD display above the balcony displayed chosen tweets, like “Celebrating my birthday today with 14,000 of my friends” – a reference to the Walmart employees from around the world flown to Arkansas by management to attend the meeting. Also present: Some of the hundred striking members of the union-backed group OUR Walmart, granted admission because they owned shares or had been designated to attend by others who did  (other strikers were in neighboring Missouri, holding actions inside and outside stores to protest alleged retaliation against an activist).

What followed was something like a cross between a Hollywood awards ceremony and a political convention: surprise celebrity appearances, storytelling from the stage about individuals seated in the crowd, and ample references to opportunity, service, and the American dream.

(I attempted to obtain media credentials from Walmart beginning in March, and was notified by a spokesperson in May that the company was denying my request due to “the limited number of media that is invited to attend…” I obtained access to the meeting using shareholder proxy authorization from the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a New York City non-profit which owns Walmart stock; I did not vote.)

The meeting was emceed by actor Hugh Jackman, who cracked jokes (one involved a superhero movie featuring “the greatest villains anyone in history has ever faced: the IRS auditors”); sang songs (including “Who Am I?”, one of the non-revolutionary Les Miserables numbers), and introduced fellow celebs, who included Tom Cruise, John Legend, and Jennifer Hudson. Walmart executives were generally introduced by rank-and-file Walmart employees, the constituency at which most of the day’s content was directed.

CEO Lee Scott and a string of other officials heaped words of praise and gratitude on the company’s workforce, individually and collectively. And while they made time to tout the company’s financial performance and philanthropic contributions, they returned most often to the theme that, in Scott’s words, “No company provides opportunities to more people to go from where they are, to where they want to be, than Walmart.” Whereas “government jobs are known for their stability,” Walmart US President Bill Simon told the crowd, and other jobs for other features, “what makes Walmart special is the opportunity.” To illustrate this point, he called up two employees who had recently applied for promotions, and then offered them the jobs on the spot.

The only disruption to that message came during the legally-required formal business of the meeting, which included the presentation of four resolutions submitted by shareholders and opposed by the company. The non-binding resolutions – involving corporate governance, board member stock retention, the board’s independence, and compensation clawbacks tied to misconduct – were backed by large institutional investors, including major union pension funds. Two of the four were presented by activists who’ve spent the past week protesting against Walmart.

The first was introduced by Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker who now directs the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Akter and her colleagues have repeatedly been jailed in Bangladesh over what human rights groups allege were spurious charges design to suppress labor organizing; Akter told The Nation in April that she currently faces a new round of charges, some of them brought by factories that contract for Walmart. Akter’s address to the Bud Walton auditorium focused on the April building collapse and November fire that killed workers in Bangladesh factories where Walmart clothes have been sewn. “Forgive me,” said Akter, “but for years every time there’s a tragedy Walmart officials have made promises to improve the terrible conditions in my country’s garment factories, yet the tragedies continue. With all due respect, the time for empty promises is over.”

Akter was followed by OUR Walmart member Janet Sparks, whose co-workers say she’s been the driving force behind the current strike by six employees in her Baker, Louisiana store. Three shareholder meetings ago, before joining OUR Walmart, Sparks was among the workers flown to Arkansas by management. Reading slowly and steadily from her statement, Sparks described a company that understaffed, underpaid, and over-relied on temps. “So when I think about the fact that our CEO Mike Duke made over $20 million last year,” she said, “more than one thousand times the average Walmart associate, with all due respect, I have to say, I don’t think that right.” A handful of OUR Walmart members cheered. (“I was so nervous,” Sparks told The Nation later.) A few sentences later, when Sparks contrasted Dukes’ millions in bonuses with sparse and paltry bonuses paid out in her store, a few attendees elsewhere in the arena tried to start a chant of of “USA! USA!”

Adding that “we can do better,” she quoted Walmart founder Sam Walton: “Listen to the Associates!” A small group of striking workers, who had gained access to the meeting either based on their own stock ownership or through proxy authorization from others, cheered a few times during Sparks’ remarks. Mid-way through Sparks’ comments, a handful of other attendees attempted to start a chant of “USA! USA!” After she asked the crowd “if you can honestly say our company is doing the best we can for customers and associates,” Board Chairman Rob Walton cut in to point out she’d exceeded her designated three minutes. Sparks closed shortly after with a quote from Sam Walton: “Listen to the associates.”

After the four shareholder resolutions had been presented, Rob Walton thanked the presenters, with little apparent enthusiasm, for “your engagement and interest in the company.” Then the hall was bathed in pink and blue light as musician Prince Royce took the stage to sing “Stand By Me.” As expected, by the meeting’s end, all Walmart-supported proposals had won majority support, and those that management opposed had failed. That news, announced by Rob Walton, brought a burst of applause. (The Walton family controls about half of Walmart’s available stock.)

After last year’s shareholder meeting, top company executives gathered on the arena’s floor to take questions from any shareholders who approached them; OUR Walmart workers took that opportunity to go in groups and confront them about their grievances. But this year, the company opted instead to offer shareholders one-on-one sessions with company representatives elsewhere in the building, a move which workers said parallels management’s repeated offers for human resources staff to meet with workers individually but not in groups. Rather than take individual meetings with less-senior staff, a group of strikers quickly presented a Walmart investor relations official in the hallway with petitions signed by supporters. Then they left the building with a brief chant of “Whose Walmart? OUR Walmart!” (In contrast, Walmart executives repeatedly referenced “your Walmart” throughout the day.)

The thousands of employees flown in by Walmart left the building soon after the OUR Walmart activists. Asked about the issues Sparks had raised regarding staffing and pay, one said said she had to run to catch a plane, a second said, “I have no complaints about that, pretty much,” and a third said, “I’m not really sure I can talk to you.”

Janet Sparks told The Nation she believes the attention drawn by the strike and today’s shareholder showdown will create an opening to draw more workers into OUR Walmart – including some of those flown to Bentonville by the company. As they return home, said Sparks, “they’re going back to the reality of being over-worked, of being under-staffed, of not being able to pay their bills and feed their families.” As for herself, she said, once she returns to work this weekend after several days on strike, “I’m ready to do even more.”

OUR Walmart organizers and workers who’d attended past shareholder meetings said they were struck by how much more of this year’s gathering was directed at the hearts and minds of employees, and by how executives’ messaging seemed designed to neutralize OUR Walmart’s allegations about scheduling, compensation, and respect. While executives didn’t mention OUR Walmart today by name, said Richmond, California, strike Pamela Davis, “Everything that we said that they are, they were saying they’re not.” (Walmart this week dismissed OUR Walmart’s protests as a “union-organized publicity stunt” with “a small and insignificant amount of associates participating.”)

Several strikers left the meeting frustrated by what they saw as the gaps between rhetoric and reality, or between the cost of the convention and the every-day cheapness of the company. Seattle striker Sara Gilbert said that the Walmart hunger-alleviation agenda touted by Tom Cruise rang hollow: “They said Walmart’s going to donate a million dinners for American people that are hungry, and they’re going to bring them to their local food bank. And the saddest thing is that their associates are going to be going to those same food banks to get that food.”

Gilbert told The Nation she found it “depressing” and “disgusting” to see the Walmart revenue lavished on the event. “I never want to go again,” she said. “Next year, I’ll be out in the stores doing actions and stuff instead.” Still, Gilbert said Walmart had shown it was starting to sweat: “Obviously they’re listening because they’re scared. We’ve just got to work harder.”