Sen. Bernie Sanders in an interview Tuesday slammed mega-retailer Walmart’s resistance to raising its workers minimum wage to $15 per hour as “grotesque” and “absurd.”
Sanders made his comments in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY on the eve of Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting. The Democratic presidential candidate was invited to speak there as a proxy for the Walmart workers’ right group United for Respect.
“When you have a situation where the wealthiest family in America, which is the Walton family of Walmart, has $174 billion in wealth, it is really absurd and unacceptable that they are paying their workers starvation wages,” Sanders told USA TODAY before heading to Arkansas for the meeting.
United for Respect is pushing for a resolution to hike Walmart’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, add a worker representative to the Board of Directors, and other measures to help workers. The group’s resolution seems unlikely to pass, but Sanders is hoping the moment will begin to build pressure on Walmart to “do the right thing.”
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His campaign on Tuesday used its social media accounts to highlight the financial struggle and working conditions for some of Walmart’s workers.
The visit to Arkansas will also allow Sanders, who previously backed successful campaigns to push Amazon and Disney to raise their minimum wage, to spotlight his campaign’s focus on the issues of wealth and income inequality.
Disney last year announced it would raise its minimum wage from $11 in annual $1 increments, culminating with a minimum $15 per hour pay in October 2021. Amazon in November raised its minimum wage, which was below $11 per hour for temporary warehouse workers in some regions, to $15.
Minimum wage on the campaign trail
The push for a $15 minimum wage has gained momentum during the current campaign.
The entire Democratic presidential field has endorsed raising the federal minimum wage, which currently sits at $7.25 per hour, to $15. California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, as well as the District of Columbia, all have passed laws requiring a $15 minimum wage be in place by 2025 or earlier.
Other big retailers, such as Costco and Target, have also recently begun hiking their hourly pay amidst a years-long ongoing push by unions and worker activist to raise minimum wage. But Walmart, with about 1.5 million employees, has resisted.
Sanders took a direct shots Tuesday at the company’s founding family, the Walton’s, and CEO Doug McMillion, who was paid $24 million last year.
“The American people are very tired of grotesque levels of income inequality,” Sanders said. “You have a situation where the CEO – forget the Walton family – of Walmart makes about 1,000 times the average worker. And really that’s not what America should be about.”
What Walmart is already doing
Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said company officials hope Sanders will not approach the shareholders meeting “as a campaign stop” but will instead use it as a “constructive opportunity to learn the many ways we’re working to provide increased economic opportunity, mobility and benefits to our associates.”
“We have raised our starting wage by 50% over the last four years (from $7.25 to $11 per hour),” Hargrove said. “The other thing I’ll tell you and our associates have told us this as well: It’s not just about the wages. It’s about the other opportunities and benefits we provide to them.”
Walmart pays an average of $17.50 per hours in wages, bonuses and benefits to its associate, Hargrove said.
The company has launched training academies at about 200 stores across the country in recent years to help steer hourly associates into better paying position. The company this week also announced it was expanding a program that allows associates to earn bachelor’s degrees in business and supply chain management for $1 per day.
“The $11 is a starting wage,” Hargrove said. “It’s an opportunity. It’s about moving people beyond entry level jobs by giving our associates clear career paths, skilled training and more control of their schedule.”
Sanders argues that Americans taxpayers are effectively subsidizing Walmart, because many of its hourly-waged workers are making so little that they must rely on government assistance in some form.
Walmart’s low-wage workers cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $6.2 billion in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing, according to a report by Americans for Tax Fairness, a coalition of national and state progressive groups, published in 2014.
“The taxpayers of this country – the working class, middle class – shouldn’t have to be subsidizing the wealthiest family in this country,” Sanders said.