May 30, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Civil rights advocate wants worker voice on Walmart board

Rev. William Barber II speaks during an El Paso Strong Community Action event in El Paso, Texas.
Rev. William Barber II speaks in El Paso. Photo: Luke E. Montavon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rev. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign is joining a growing movement to press Walmart for employee representation on the company’s board, Axios reports.

Driving the news: Barber, a leading figure on the Christian left, tells Axios that in remarks to shareholders this week, he'll tie the fate of workers who fell ill or died from COVID-19 to the company's sick leave policies.

Why it matters: Employee representation is a concept gaining traction among Washington lawmakers. Walmart is the world's largest retailer and the nation's biggest company by revenue.

Details: Barber is set on Wednesday to address Walmart shareholders virtually during an annual meeting, and he'll ask them to create a “Pandemic Workforce Advisory Council” made up of hourly workers to advise the board. A newspaper and digital ad campaign is running between now and the meeting.

  • Shareholders are set to vote on a proposal by Cynthia Murray, a 20-year Walmart associate, to create the council and give employees more say in some corporate decisions.
  • Barber is attending at the request of the employee group United for Respect.

What they're saying: In prepared remarks reviewed by Axios, Barber says there are "perhaps hundreds of your workers who are not alive today because of this vicious coronavirus that was allowed to spread through your stores, largely in secret, as your workers feared for their lives every day."

  • He says even more suffered because "they were too poor to stay home from work, too afraid of retaliation to get the time off."
  • Barber tells Axios that Walmart workers should receive a larger portion of the company's wealth, earn at least $15 an hour and "need to sit in places of power, where people are making decisions that will impact their lives for a long time."

The other side: Walmart, through a spokesperson, tells Axios that associates unable to work or uncomfortable working due to COVID-19 have been encouraged to stay home.

The intrigue: Walmart tried to get SEC relief so it could exclude the proposal from the shareholder meeting, but the agency declined.

  • The company said it works with third-party advisory councils shaping its thinking in areas including its human rights statement — and that in the past year it raised wages; improved benefits, health and safety measures, and joined efforts involving racial equity.
  • "We believe our workforce strategy is designed to promote upward mobility for our diverse workforce and is consistent with our broader goals and initiatives regarding racial equity," the company said.

Yes, but: Colorado State Treasurer Dave Young, who supports the Walmart proposal, said the state suffered massive losses and costs because Walmart employees got sick and suffered from low pay.

  • "I'm not dismissing the work that Walmart has attempted to do already, but I just think that this proposal actually adds value and gives a different perspective that may actually reveal some strategies that they haven't even considered."

Don't forget: Walmart has a cadre of corporate social responsibility programs that have all become more of its corporate narrative in recent years, Axios' Worth Sparkman reports.

  • Through its Walmart Foundation, the company donated $1.4 billion to many of those causes in fiscal 2020.
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