Taking What’s Ours From Walmart

This week, Bernie Sanders is going to Walmart’s annual stockholders meeting. He’ll be pushing the company to give the people who create Walmart’s wealth — its workers — representation on the company’s board.

Wal-Mart store exterior in Laredo, Texas, February 22, 2004. Jared C. Benedict / Wikimedia

We’re hearing more about women workers this Democratic primary season. Elizabeth Warren has some welcome ideas about childcare. Kamala Harris wants to raise teacher pay. Even “Creepy Joe” joined the workers on the Stop & Shop picket line. But only one candidate is confronting the nation’s largest private exploiter of women workers on its home turf next week.

That’s Bernie Sanders, who’s been invited by Walmart workers to the company’s annual shareholder meeting on June 5 in Rogers, Arkansas. He will speak in favor of a resolution to allow representation of hourly employees on the company’s board of directors. The proposal was drafted by Cat Davis, a longtime Walmart employee and a leader in the Walmart workers’ rights group United for Respect, and Bernie will take the mic as her proxy.

The company (no surprise) plans to vote down Davis’s proposal. But having Bernie Sanders at Wednesday’s meeting will draw attention to the workers’ efforts. It’s also, for Bernie, a sharp campaign move.

The conditions of Walmart workers matter to voters in red states. While Bernie — and Trump, too, the latter in all the wrong ways of course — have rightly made much of the loss of manufacturing in the Midwest and South, it’s just as important to decry the kinds of jobs that have taken that sector’s place. As an industry leader in retail, Walmart has been a significant drag on the labor market, keeping wages and benefits as low as possible in places where many factory workers used to prosper. Of course, all of Bernie’s platform — from raising the minimum wage to $15 to free reproductive health care to free college — would help these workers, if enacted, but going to Walmart’s headquarters makes his campaign message more personal to the retailer’s 1.5 million US workers, many of them just the kind of non-coastal voters Democrats will need to woo away from Trump in order to win in 2020.

With so much to be gained, why isn’t the Walmart meeting a more popular stop on the Democratic primary campaign trail? Mostly because the Democratic Party is, to say the least, poorly equipped to call out the company. Hillary Clinton famously served on the Walmart board and later, even after the company’s abuses of women workers had been widely reported, said she was proud of having held the position. Both Clintons were socially close to Walmart founder Sam Walton and his family. Historically, the company has favored Republicans and conservative causes in its political donations. That’s still true: its largesse has even extended to white nationalist Iowa Congressman Steve King, whose racist comments have been too much even for the GOP, which stripped him of his committee assignments earlier this year after the New York Times reported that he had wondered aloud how it had “become offensive” to be a “white supremacist.”

But 44 percent of Walmart’s 2018 federal PAC donations went to Democrats, including 2020 presidential contender Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has been a favorite of Walmart’s for years. More surprisingly, progressive darling Tulsi Gabbard has also been a regular recipient of Walmart money.

While worker representation on corporate boards is commonplace in corporate governance in Germany and other countries, it’s almost unheard of in the United States. Walmart’s twelve-person board is comprised mostly of current and former CEOs but also includes three members of the Walton family including Sam Walton’s grandson, private equity mogul and amateur pilot Steuart Walton — the sight of whose pampered face should make you either want to donate to Bernie’s campaign or begin slitting throats, depending your preferred route to expropriation.

Worker ownership has recently emerged as a signature issue for Sanders. As Matt Bruenig wrote here last week, Sanders is working on a plan to require companies to regularly contribute a share of their stocks into funds controlled by their employees.

For Bernie, Walmart is also a well-chosen political target from a feminist perspective. The vast majority of its hourly workers are women, and from 2001 to 2011, the company was the target of the largest civil rights class action suit in history, Betty Dukes vs. Walmart Stores, with employees alleging sex discrimination at every level of Walmart’s operations: pay, promotions, and hiring. (Lead plaintiff Betty Dukes, first a cashier and later a greeter at the company, died two years ago at sixty-seven.) Data obtained during the lawsuit showed that women were paid less than men in every position at the company, were drastically underrepresented in management positions, and were promoted less quickly and less often than men despite higher performance evaluations.

Bernie talks a lot about inequality. But on the Left, he gets less credit for also emphasizing exploitation — a problem far more deeply intertwined with capitalism and one that demands more radical solutions. While even full-time hourly workers at Walmart average only $14.26 per hour, several of the richest people in the world are members of the Walton family. As Betty Dukes told me in 2003, “We have made them wealthy.”