I spent Friday morning – a very long morning – at the Walmart shareholders' meeting in Fayetteville, Ark. I purchased a few shares about six months ago, thinking it would be helpful to witness the company's annual meeting given the work IWJ does on supporting Walmart store and supply chain workers.
For four hours, I felt like I was on another planet. I quickly regretted sitting in the middle of a group of Sam's Club associates as they began cheering and screaming louder than everyone else in the arena. Between the pumped-up crowd, celebrity line-up and overly produced performances, the whole event felt more like the Olympics opening ceremony or a sold-out rock concert than a shareholders' meeting.
Throughout the "event" - it really shouldn't be called a shareholders' meeting - it was clear the Walmart leadership had two main themes: value for workers and integrity. To me it was a clear reminder that scripted messages do not always equal truth.
Walmart began the day by professing how much it "loves" its associates. How “the company has always been about our associates.” "We celebrate our associates.” “Thank you associates.” “Dad (Sam Walton) spent more time with associates than managers.” “Dad really listened.” “Walmart associates are ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things.” Then they shifted to a clear script that was repeated numerous times: “If you have talent and work hard, you will have opportunity at Walmart.” This was a direct response to OUR Walmart members' call for decent wages and benefits. Basically, Walmart's is saying: jobs may start low, but if you work hard you’ll move up in the systems. If you don’t move up, it is your own fault. Walmart offers opportunities, you just didn’t work hard enough or have enough talent.
The second theme was integrity, a somewhat surprising theme given the company’s bribery investigation in Mexico and the lack of enforcement of sourcing standards that clearly played a role in the deaths of Bangladeshi factory workers. Throughout the meeting, the company leadership never acknowledged any problems, but rather just kept reiterating that the company is built on integrity. They gave out the “Integrity in Action” award. Rob Walton assured us all that integrity and transparency were the primary values for the board of directors. Again, scripted messages don't always equal truth.
Tom Cruise, among the stars who trotted across the stage, assured us that Walmart is focused on opportunity for women (this is the same company that had the largest ever gender discrimination case filed against it), environmental sustainability (it does make good financial sense for the company), healthy food choices (you wouldn’t know it by the donuts, chips and cookies offered for breakfast at the meeting) and fighting hunger (except among its own associates with poverty wages). Does Walmart leadership really believe that if they say it multiple times and have movie stars say it, we will believe it?
In past years, the management opened up the floor to questions from shareholders. Last year, OUR Walmart associates peppered the management with questions about wages, benefits, hours and treatment. This year, Walmart avoided the public questioning. They had four small conference rooms each with six to eight management staff who would meet with people individually to discuss topics. The OUR Walmart folks delivered their petitions and decided not to go in one-by-one.
Since I’d gone all the way to Arkansas for the spectacle, I got myself at the front of the line. Once admitted, I faced seven tall managers standing in a semi-circle facing me. I asked one basic question: Why couldn’t Walmart, the richest company in the world, raise wages and improve health care benefits for its workers? No one ever answered the question. They told me they do pay great wages and benefits, gave me the mantra on working hard and moving up the ladder of opportunity, and insisted they pay the best wages in the industry. A Vice-President of Human Resources agreed to meet and show me the facts. I told them that I had talked with hundreds of Walmart associates who did not experience good wages or adequate benefits and that they clearly could do better.
I wasn’t expecting to “persuade” anyone, but I did hope to understand how they justify such gross disparities of income and wealth between average associates (earning $8.81 per hour) and the top six Walton family members (with the same wealth as 42 percent of the American public) and why they won’t consider raising wages and benefits. I still don’t understand. They could raise wages. They could provide quality, affordable health care. They just don’t. But, they love their associates?
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