Bernie Sanders Is Taking His Populist Message to Walmart’s Shareholder Meeting

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(Bloomberg) — Bernie Sanders is bringing his populist presidential campaign to the front door of Walmart Inc., attempting to pressure the country’s largest private employer to improve pay and working conditions for the working-class voters he’s counting on to win the Democratic nomination.

Sanders will be at Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting in Rogers, Arkansas, on Wednesday to introduce a proposal, which has no chance of passing, to let one of the company’s hourly workers have a seat on its board.

“I think the American people are profoundly disgusted with a situation in which millions and millions of workers today continue to work at starvation wages,” Sanders said in an interview Tuesday, “while the very very rich in this country become much richer. And Walmart is the clearest example of that.”

In his second campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders, a Vermont senator, is again aiming his message at working-class voters with proposals for raising the minimum wage, providing universal health coverage and expanding union rights. He has repeatedly used his campaign email list to mobilize supporters to join protesting workers at companies including General Motors, McDonald’s Corp. and Disney.

With his frequent attacks on Walmart, Amazon.com Inc. and other major employers, Sanders has been contrasting himself with former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination, who also is making a pitch to working-class and union voters.

He also faces competition from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who’s built a reputation as a champion for consumers and workers and last year introduced legislation that would let employees pick 40% of a company’s board members.

‘Rigged Economy’

Walmart is a regular topic for Sanders when he’s out in early primary states greeting voters. At an ice cream social last week in Laconia, New Hampshire, Sanders said the mammoth retailer embodies what he calls the “rigged economy,” pointing out that heirs of the company’s founder, Sam Walton, are worth about $175 billion, making them the wealthiest family in the U.S.

The proposal that Sanders will introduce is buried at the end of Walmart’s annual proxy statement under “Other Matters.” He will speak as a proxy for Cat Davis, the Walmart employee who filed the latest action, according to United for Respect, a workers’ rights organization.

Asked for comment, Walmart referred to a previous statement by company spokesman Randy Hargrove: “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.”

Sanders said in the interview that, with major companies and states adopting a $15 minimum wage, the momentum is shifting toward workers demanding and getting a bigger say in how companies are run and the benefits they provide.

“I’m not going to tell you that one representative on the board will change all of the dynamics, but it’s a step forward,” he said. “Right now you have companies – the boards and CEOS of major corporations – who feel that their 100 percent responsibility is only to their stockholders. And I think that’s got to change.”

He has already had an influence on wages at Amazon. Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos announced last fall that he would offer at least $15 an hour to more than 250,000 current employees and 100,000 seasonal workers who would be hired during the 2018 holiday season.

That move came after Sanders had heaped criticism on Bezos and his company, even introducing legislation that would tax Amazon, Walmart and other big companies whose workers sometimes draw on public assistance.

Sanders congratulated Bezos for doing the “right thing,” but has continued to pressure Amazon in other ways. That includes teaming up with Warren to press Bezos on whether the company was illegally interfering in the right of workers at Whole Foods supermarkets to organize.

Sanders said that if elected president he would “absolutely” continue calling out specific companies for mistreating their workers. Asked if he would keep targeting companies on Twitter and Facebook, he replied, “Well, I’m not Donald Trump, and I’ll do it in my own way. But I think the employers of this country will know which side I am on.”

In visiting the home state of the Arkansas-based retailer, Sanders appears in a place where he was crushed by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, with the former first lady of the state taking 66% of the vote and Sanders garnering just 30%.

While the Walmart appearance is more about keeping the lens of the campaign on his corporate governance theme, he’s also been visiting places he lost significantly to Clinton, including Georgia and Alabama.

–With assistance from Matthew Boyle.

To contact the reporters on this story: Laura Litvan in Washington at llitvan@bloomberg.net;Josh Eidelson in Washington at jeidelson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, John Harney

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