Walmart shareholders got a surprising guest at their annual meeting Wednesday in Bentonville, Ark.: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The presidential candidate demanded that the company pay employees at least $15 an hour, and advocated for a proposal to allow hourly workers to join Walmart’s board of directors.

Politico reports that Sanders was there as a proxy for Cat Davis, a Walmart employee and leader of United for Respect, a worker advocacy group that devised the proposal.

In a three-minute speech, Sanders blasted the income disparity between Walmart’s highly paid CEO and owners, and its workers, who Sanders said make “starvation wages.” According to Politico, he told shareholders:

Walmart is the largest private employer in America and is owned by the Walton family, the wealthiest family in the United States, worth approximately $175 billion. And yet despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages, wages that are so low that many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive.

Sanders also noted that CEO Doug McMillon, with $20 million in total compensation for 2018, makes 1,000 times more than the average Walmart employee, in what he called a “grotesque level of income and wealth inequality.”

Walmart, in its first-ever Environmental, Social and Governance Report, claims that an average full-time store associate makes $14.25 an hour as of 2018—double the federal minimum wage. The report also says that the starting salary for associates is $11 and hour, but, as Inc. pointed out in a May 9 article, the report is “not comprehensive: It doesn’t include how much part-time associates make, and it’s unclear how many of Walmart’s 1.5 million U.S. employees are full-time workers.”

According to United for Respect, half of Walmart’s workers are part-time employees.

While Walmart seemed to welcome Sanders ahead of the meeting, it changed its tune the day of the event, as CNN points out. Dan Bartlett, Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, tweeted what CNN reporter Gregory Krieg called a “prebuttal” of Sanders’ remarks:

Politico reported that attendees responded to Sanders’ remarks with “tepid applause.” A Sanders campaign aide also told Politico that “three of his staffers weren’t allowed in, and Rachel Brand, Walmart’s executive vice president of global governance, chief legal officer and corporate secretary, swiftly dismissed the proposal.”

Brand thanked Sanders for his speech before saying, “While we don’t support this particular proposal, the importance of listening to and investing in our associates was reflected in Doug’s remarks and you’ll hear more about it later in the meeting.”

Asked by CNN’s Ryan Nobles whether he thinks Walmart’s CEO was receptive to his message, Sanders responded, “No, I don’t,” adding, “I feel like if he got the message, what he would say is, “We are going to do what many of our competitors are doing—what Amazon has already done, Costco, what Target is moving toward—and raise that minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour.’ ”

Watch Sanders at the Walmart meeting in the video below:


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