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Bernie Sanders heads to Walmart's annual meeting to press for worker representation

Julia La Roche
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. plans to attend Walmart's annual shareholders' meeting in Arkansas next month. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is expected to attend Walmart’s (WMT) annual shareholders’ meeting next month, as part of a push for the U.S.’s largest employer to appoint hourly store associates to its board of directors.

Walmart’s annual confab, set for June 5, is attended by nearly 14,000 employees and investors in Bentonville, Arkansas. In news first reported by The Washington Post, workers rights group United For Respect extended an invitation to the Democratic presidential contender to introduce a shareholders' proposal at the meeting, which Sanders has accepted.

The group’s proposal asks that Walmart adopt a policy of “promoting significant representation of employee perspectives” by requiring that the initial list of candidates for new board nominees include hourly associates.

“At a time of deepening racial and economic divide and insecurity, hourly Associates can guide a more fair, inclusive, and equitable corporate ecosystem that bridges differences,” the group wrote, citing Walmart’s large number of women, black and Hispanic employees.

The retail giant’s pay practices have come under fire by worker advocates and politicians like Sanders, who argue Walmart doesn’t pay its employees a fair wage. Last week, the company released data showing it pays its hourly workers nearly double the federal minimum wage, but that failed to mollify some of its critics.

“Walmart’s pay is so low that a full-time Associate (at 34 hours a week, Walmart’s definition of full time) earning Walmart’s starting wage can still fall below the federal poverty line for a family of three,” UFR said, hitting Walmart’s stock buyback policy.

“While the share repurchases generated tremendous returns for shareholders, those gains were not shared by hourly Associates, many of whom have not had a decent raise in years and struggle to support their families,” the group stated. “If given a voice in corporate decision-making, hourly Associates can ensure that all stakeholders benefit from and help grow the company.”

Pushing for higher pay

According to United For Respect’s website, the group has pushed for a base wage of $15 per hour for its associates and "similar raises for long-term associates,” among other demands.

The group also wants a seat for hourly workers on the board of directors to "ensure we have a say in decisions that impact our work and our lives.”

In a statement to Yahoo Finance, Walmart said it will respond to specific shareholder proposals once they are formally presented at the meeting.

“If Senator Sanders attends, we hope he will approach his visit not as a campaign stop, but as a constructive opportunity to learn about the many ways we’re working to provide increased economic opportunity, mobility and benefits to our associates — as well as our widely recognized leadership on environmental sustainability,” the company added.

Following his campaign against Amazon and its wage practices last fall, Sanders turned his sights on Walmart and other large companies by co-authoring the Stop WALMART Act.

That legislation would prevent large employers from buying back stock unless they pay all employees at least $15 per hour, allow for up to 7 days of paid sick leave, and cap CEO compensation at no more than 150 times the median pay of all employees.

Amazon (AMZN) —Walmart’s chief competitor—has responded to mounting political pressure by hiking its workers’ hourly pay to $15, a move Sanders praised when the retail giant announced the news last October.

However, Yahoo Finance’s Krystal Hu reported at the time that some Amazon (AMZN) employees said they would earn less following the $15 minimum wage hike, because the company eliminated its Restricted Stock Unit (RSU) awards as part of its compensation offering.

Pulling back the curtain on pay

In this Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, photo, Walmart employees Kenneth White, left, and Marvin Toc work together using an inventory app while participating in a class at the Walmart Academy at the store in North Bergen, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Last week, Walmart published its inaugural Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) report, which revealed some of the inner workings as to how it pays and trains its employees.

Amidst a heated national debate about income inequality — and the role employers should play in mitigating its effects — Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said that “people want to see companies doing good in the world, and people want to work for companies they believe in.”

According to the company, the average hourly wage of a full-time, hourly associate in its U.S. stores is $14.26. A starting associate makes $11 per hour, up more than 50% from three years ago. The federal minimum wage sits at $7.25 per hour.

A key department manager at Walmart can earn up to $24.70 per hour, the report said. The average total compensation, including wages, benefits, and bonuses, for an hourly field associate at Walmart is $19.31.

Meanwhile, a store manager earns an average of $175,000 per year. About 75% of the store operations management team started as hourly associates.

Like many retailers that employ lots of part-time and seasonal workers, Walmart has grappled with high turnover rates. Yet the report noted that employee departures have dropped by 10%, to their lowest level in five years.

In the past, Walmart has taken criticism for not paying its workers enough to sustain themselves. In the wake of the passage of President Donald Trump’s massive tax cut, the company boosted its starting hourly rate to $11, and expanded a range of benefits.

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.