Walmart’s 2014 shareholder meeting kicked off in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Friday with a musical performance by Pharrell Williams and forward-looking speeches from company executives, but news about the company elsewhere threatens to upstage the company’s carefully choreographed annual showcase.
Workers at a Washington, D.C. Walmart Supercenter plan to walk off the job on Friday afternoon to hold a rally with senior labor leaders from both the AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Friday’s walkout is planned for 1:30 pm, according to a press release, and will culminate in a rally where workers will denounce the company’s alleged history of firing workers who speak up about their labor rights. The National Labor Relations Board has accused the company of illegal retaliatory actions against worker-activists, and the case is ongoing. The company maintains an internal manual for managers that instructs them to tiptoe up to the line of what labor law allows in order to monitor worker conversations and cajole employees into staying out of the years-long fight to organize Walmart workers.
The walkout comes on the heels of a commercial research survey released Thursday that found shoppers are more than twice as likely to hold negative views of Walmart than of competitors like Target. “The data is clear that Walmart’s record of treating workers poorly is harming the company’s reputation,” according to Lake Research Partners, which surveyed over 800 customers from the end of May into early June. The survey finds that 28 percent of shoppers hold a negative view of Walmart (compared to just 13 percent for Target and 6 percent for Costco), and that 23 percent of shoppers have doubts about spending their money at Walmart due to its treatment of workers. Two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that Walmart “could afford to pay higher wages and better benefits if it chose to.”
Meanwhile, the shareholder meeting itself is going to feature calls for a change in leadership from a slate of Walmart stock owners who have issued reports criticizing the company’s performance and executive pay plans over the past two weeks. The shareholder activism efforts include a petition to stop Walmart heir Rob Walton from being elected to the company’s board, which more than 50,000 shareholders have signed, and efforts by both Walmart employees and major independent investors to get shareholders to vote “no” on Walton’s election and on the company’s executive pay proposal.
In Fayetteville on Friday morning, Walmart’s Chief Financial Officer Charles Holley Jr. tried to acknowledge the company’s recent struggles. “Last year was not a typical Walmart year,” Holley told the crowd in the auditorium and watching online, “and we all felt it.” But whatever Holley and his fellow executives felt, they maintained enormous wealth in comparison to the minimum wage workers employed in stores. William Simon, the CEO of Walmart’s American operation, was paid $11.5 million last year. The last $1.5 million of that came from a performance bonus that was only supposed to be paid of American sales grew by 2 percent. Simon oversaw growth of just 1.8 percent, but got his bonus anyway.
Every penny of the $298 million in “performance pay” bonuses Walmart has paid over the past six years was tax deductible. As a result, taxpayers have subsidized Walmart executive pay to the tune of $104 million since 2009, according to a report released this week.