Walmart CEO Mike Duke speaks to a crowd of shareholders from around the world during the Walmart shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, Ark., Friday, June 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Gareth Patterson)
Fayetteville, Arkansas—A striking retail worker and a Bangladesh labor activist today made their case from the floor of Walmart’s shareholder meeting, addressing thousands of workers and stock-owners and countering what was otherwise a highly scripted celebration of the largest private company in the world.
Thousands of Walmart shareholders and employees settled into their seats before 7 CST this morning, nearly filling the University of Arkansas’s Bud Walton arena as a band on stage played “We Are Family” and “I Will Survive.” An LCD display above the balcony displayed chosen tweets, like “Celebrating my birthday today with 14,000 of my friends”—a reference to the Walmart employees from around the world flown to Arkansas by management to attend the meeting. Also present: some of the hundred striking members of the union-backed group OUR Walmart, granted admission because they owned shares or had been designated to attend by others who did. (Other strikers were in neighboring Missouri, holding actions inside and outside stores to protest alleged retaliation against an activist.)
What followed was something like a cross between a Hollywood awards ceremony and a political convention: surprise celebrity appearances, storytelling from the stage about individuals seated in the crowd and ample references to opportunity, service and the American dream.
(I attempted to obtain media credentials from Walmart beginning in March, and was notified by a spokesperson in May that the company was denying my request because of “the limited number of media that is invited to attend…” I obtained access to the meeting using shareholder proxy authorization from the Neighborhood Economic Development Advocacy Project, a New York City nonprofit that owns Walmart stock; I did not vote.)
The meeting was emceed by actor Hugh Jackman, who cracked jokes (one involved a superhero movie featuring “the greatest villains anyone in history has ever faced: the IRS auditors”); sang songs (including “Who Am I?”, one of the non-revolutionary Les Miserables numbers) and introduced fellow celebs, including Tom Cruise, John Legend and Jennifer Hudson. Walmart executives were generally introduced by rank-and-file Walmart employees, the constituency at which most of the day’s content was directed.
CEO Mike Duke and a string of other officials heaped words of praise and gratitude on the company’s workforce, individually and collectively. And while they made time to tout the company’s financial performance and philanthropic contributions, they returned most often to the theme that, in Duke’s words, “No company provides opportunities to more people to go from where they are, to where they want to be, than Walmart.” Whereas “government jobs are known for their stability,” Walmart US President Bill Simon told the crowd, and other jobs for other features, “what makes Walmart special is the opportunity.” To illustrate this point, he called up two employees who had recently applied for promotions, and then offered them the jobs on the spot.