Bernie Sanders went to the shareholder meeting of Walmart, the largest private employer in the world and told the company it pays its workers "starvation wages."
The Democratic presidential candidate and independent Vermont senator was allowed three minutesin Rogers, Arkansas Wednesday morning. He had been invited by the workers' group United for Respect to speak as its proxy at the annual meeting.
"Wages that are so low so low that many employees are forced to rely on government programs," said Sanders. "Frankly the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in this country."
"They are also outraged by the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America, as demonstrated by the CEO of Walmart making a thousand times more than the average Walmart employee," Sanders said. Last year, Sanders pointed out, Walmart "paid its CEO over $20 million in compensation, and it has authorized $20 billion in stock buybacks which will benefit its wealthiest stockholders."
He chided the company, "Surely with all of that Walmart can afford to pay its employee a living wage of at least $15 an hour."
Before his appearance, Walmart representatives said they hoped Sanders would not use his address as a campaign stop. It's true that the event couldn't have felt more different than a Sanders rally. The attendees sat in neatly aligned chairs. There was no need for Sanders shout over the cheers of his supporters. His brief remarks were met with polite applause — it was the very picture of corporate America.
About two hundred Walmart associates and shareholders filled the ballroom at the John Q. Hammons Convention Center.
Leading up to the meeting, shareholders voted on multiple proposals including some submitted by United for Respect. Sanders was advocating for raising Walmart's minimum wage from $11 per hour to $15. He and the group also called for employee representation on the company's board of directors.
After his remarks, Sanders went to the parking lot to address a more familiar crowd. There, raucous supporters, some Walmart associates -- and some who weren't -- surrounded the senator.
"When we talk about fairness and we talk about income inequality, we are talking about Walmart," Sanders told the crowd.
The invitation for Sanders to speak is a feather in his pro-worker cap. Most of the 24 Democratic candidates for president have tried to showcase their support for blue-collar workers and unions, advocating for a $15 federal minimum wage. Sanders' appearance in Arkansas sets him apart from the field, though. Using the notoriety he gained from his failed 2016 presidential campaign, the senator urged Amazon and Disney to pay hourly employees $15 per hour last year, and both companies eventually increased wages.
Walmart associates are hoping for Sanders' voice to carry the same weight in Arkansas that it did in Seattle and Burbank. Shareholder voting results for will be released later Wednesday afternoon.