Walmart under pressure to add employee representation to its board

US retail giant Walmart is facing increased pressure to add employee representation to its board, as a leading figure on the Christian left, the Rev William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, says he will press the company on the issue at its annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday.

Barber is an influential civil rights voice on race and equality in America and is also set to hammer Walmart on its record of worker safety during the coronavirus pandemic as well as call for a wage rise for its gigantic workforce.

Barber told Axios he plans to pressure the big box store chain, which employs more than 2.3 million employees, and is valued at close to $400bn, to tie the fate of workers who fell ill or died from Covid-19 to the company’s sick leave policies.

In remarks seen by Axios, Barber will tell the meeting that 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.”

Barber will also say more workers suffered because “they were too poor to stay home from work, too afraid of retaliation to get the time off” and that the company’s workers should 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”.

In April, Walmart employee Cynthia Murray filed a proposal for hourly employee representation. In a supporting statement, Murray said: “There is growing consensus that the presence of employees on corporate boards can contribute to the long-term sustainability of a company.”

Walmart sought relief from the Securities and Exchange Commission to exclude the proposal from the board meeting, but the regulatory agency declined.

The company, however has said that it is working with third-party advisory councils to help shape its approach, including its human rights dichiarazione, and has over the past year 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 in a statement.

A spokesman pointed to a series of corporate social responsibility programs and the Walmart Foundation, which received $1.4bn from the company in 2020.

The Walmart proposal comes amid increased political support for employee representation. Massachusetts Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren announced last year that she supports legislation which would require that workers elect 40% of board members. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has called for any company with $100m on its balance sheet to have 45% worker-elected board membership.

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