FAYETTEVILLE, ARK. — Walmart celebrated its store associates and flaunted its financial performance and social responsibility at the company’s annual shareholder meeting here this month.
As per tradition, the corporate pep rally was peppered with celebrity appearances, which this year included performances by Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, John Legend and master of ceremonies Hugh Jackman.
Actor Tom Cruise also made a special appearance, to tout Walmart’s commitment to women, the environment, food banks and healthful eating choices.
But the performances and homilies, and the raucous cheers of 14,000 hand-picked associates at the Bud Walton arena, belied growing dissent among shareholders and workers. A number of major pension funds and proxy advisory firms opposed the re-election of board members including chairman Rob Walton and CEO Mike Duke, and offered proposals in response to the spreading Mexico bribery scandal and the factory fire and building collapse in Bangladesh.
In stark contrast to the meeting’s orchestrated hoopla, the issue of workplace safety and supply-chain oversight was brought front and center by Bangladeshi sweatshop worker turned activist Kalpona Akter, who traveled to Arkansas with a survivor of the factory fire. Akter told the crowd during a legally required proposal session that the repairs needed to make Walmart-sourced factories safe would cost just 1 percent of the dividends paid out last year to the controlling Walton family, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at well more than $100 billion.
Walmart said it was not producing garments at the factory at the time of its collapse in April, which killed more than 1,100 workers.
Meanwhile, about 100 Walmart associates from around the country converged on corporate headquarters in the days leading up to the meeting, demanding full-time hours, a living wage, better working conditions, and protection from retaliation.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Walmart COO Gisel Ruiz dismissed the protesters as paid agents of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which sent them, she said, to disrupt pre-meeting festivities that included a concert by Elton John.
The employees were in fact members of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart), which was founded with support from the UFCW but has since distanced itself from the union.
One of the striking workers, Janet Sparks, also read a shareholder proposal, which would have required senior executives to retain more of their Walmart shares until retirement age, in order to better align their interests with those of shareholders. Sparks, who identified herself as an eight-year associate at store No. 1102 in Baker, La., also spoke of understaffed stores, a parttime labor force, and the great disparity between the incomes of workers and management.
The proposals were opposed by the board of directors as not being “in the best interests of our company or its shareholders” and were handily voted down. More than half of all outstanding Walmart shares are controlled by the Walton family, scions of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
In his remarks before the assemblage, chairman Walton, Sam’s son, stressed that “integrity, transparency and openness” guide the board’s decisions.
“Acting with integrity is not negotiable,” he said. “We will not tolerate ethical wrongdoing of any kind. This is the board’s commitment, and it’s my personal commitment.”
For his part, CEO Duke credited the associates for the company’s unparalleled financial strength — which includes projected global e-commerce revenues of $10 billion this year — and spoke of the career opportunities Walmart affords them.
“No company provides more opportunity to more people to go from where they are to where they want to be than Walmart,” he said.
But striking workers reportedly left the meeting frustrated by what they saw as a gap between the rhetoric and reality. As one employee told The Nation, referencing Tom Cruise’s nod to Walmart’s food-bank donations, “Associates are going to be going to those same food banks to get that food.”