Bernie Sanders brings battle against 'greed' inside Walmart shareholders meeting

Access to the comments Comments
By Dareh Gregorian and Shaquille Brewster and Gary Grumbach  with NBC News Politics
Image: Bernie Sanders
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event, on May 30, 2019, in Las Vegas.   -   Copyright  John Locher AP file

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who's long accused Walmart of paying its employees "starvation wages," urged the company's top executives on Wednesday to "do the right thing" and pay workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour at the retail giant's annual shareholders meeting.

"The issue we're dealing with here today is pretty simple," the Vermont senator said at the meeting in Rogers, Ark. He noted that Walmart "is the largest private employer in America" and its owners, the Waltons, are the richest family in the country, worth approximately $175 billion.

"Despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages, wages that are so low than many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive," Sanders said, adding "the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in the country."

The 2020 presidential candidate said those same people "are also outraged by the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America, as demonstrated by the CEO of Walmart making 1000 times more than the average employee."

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who made $24 million in 2018, was in attendance, but his reaction could not be seen on a livestream of the shareholder meeting.

While Sanders is not a Walmart shareholder, he was able to address the meeting after being named a proxy by shareholder Cat Davis, a Walmart employee, and with the help of workers' rights organization United for Respect.

Sanders urged passage of a resolution that would raise the company's minimum wage — which is currently $11 an hour — and see workers appointed to the board of directors.

The wage hike, he said, is "not radical," noting that "many of Walmart's major competitors" have "already moved in that direction." That would include Amazon, which agreed to hike wages after prodding from Sanders.

"Please do the right thing," Sanders said.

Walmart's executive vice president of global governance, Rachel Brand, said that "while we don't support this resolution," some of the issues raised by Sanders would be addressed later.

Walmart chairman of the board Greg Penner spoke shortly before Sanders, and pointed out his attendance at the meeting.

"It's always notable when a U.S. senator comes to visit us, and I want to welcome Sen. Sanders today," Penner said.

Sanders had stepped up his criticism of the company in recent days, including tweeting shortly before the meeting started that, "The greed of companies like Walmart at the expense of working people will end."

He's also tweeted five campaign-produced videos from Walmart workers using the hashtag #EndWalmartGreed.

The resolution championed by Sanders is not likely to pass — the Walton family holds the majority shares, and the Washington Postreported that Walmart shareholders have voted down every employee proposal in company history.

Afterwards, Sanders brushed off questions about criticism that the appearance was a veiled campaign stop.

"Check my record. I've been doing this stuff for my whole life," Sanders told NBC.

In a statement issued before Sanders' appearance, Walmart said it hoped he would use the experience "as a constructive opportunity to learn about the many ways we're working to provide increased economic opportunity, mobility and benefits to our associates — as well as our widely recognized leadership on environmental sustainability."