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Bernie Sanders showed up to Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting Wednesday and publicly confronted the company’s leaders about the “starvation wages” they pay workers.
Sanders, likely among the Walton family’s least desired guest speakers, found his way into the shareholders meeting of one of his principal nemeses after Cat Davis, an 11-year employee, invited him to introduce her proposal to give hourly-wage workers a seat on the board. Sanders also pushed for Walmart — the company he has most fiercely targeted since Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 last year — to implement the same minimum wage.
“Despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages,” Sanders said directly to shareholders at the meeting in Arkansas. “Wages that are so low that many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and public housing in order to survive.”
“Frankly, the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in this country,” Sanders continued. “They are also outraged by the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America as demonstrated by the CEO of Walmart making 1,000 times more than the average Walmart employee.”
He’s right: Walmart CEO Doug McMillon's total compensation hit nearly $24 million in 2018. Compare that to a median salary of about $22,000 for your typical Walmart worker. Broadly, compensation for top bosses vastly outpaces raises for low-level workers.
Sanders also urged shareholders to allow workers onto its board, currently comprised of nine men and three women, including McDonald’s CEO Stephen Easterbrook, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and three members of the Walton family.
Shareholders outright rejected the idea — ”we don’t support this particular proposal” — and Sanders went outside to directly address Walmart workers. It was an ideal moment of publicity for Sanders, known as a corporate giant-slayer and advocate for the working class. Walmart is the country's largest private employer, and the Waltons are far and away its wealthiest family.
“One might think that a family worth $175 billion would be able to pay its employees a living wage, and yet you all know the starting wage at Walmart right now is $11 an hour,” Sanders told supporters outside the Walmart rally Wednesday. “People cannot make it on $11 an hour.”
The 2020 Democrats have all been clamoring to show their support for striking workers and gain support from labor unions, positioning union solidarity as a central issue for Democratic hopefuls. But Sanders’ entire campaign and message has always rested on advocating for working people while fighting exorbitantly wealthy billionaires and corporations. The independent senator from Vermont, for example, has shown his support for rank-and-file worker movements by directly rallying bodies to picket lines through his mass email lists.
Sanders also was the first presidential candidate in U.S. history to recognize a staff union, which ratified a historic contract last month. His 2020 opponent — and the other presidential hopeful known for going after Wall Street — Sen. Elizabeth Warren followed suit and recognized a staff union this week.
Cover image: In this June 2, 2019, file photo Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the 2019 California Democratic Party State Organizing Convention in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)