Wal-Mart celebrates at annual meeting as protests persist

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark., June 7 Fri Jun 7, 2013 10:57am EDT

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark., June 7 (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc announced a new $15 billion repurchase plan at its annual meeting on Friday and emphasized the advancement opportunities its workers have, even as a small but vocal group of workers complained that they cannot make enough money working for the world's largest retailer.

The retailer's annual meeting, at the Bud Walton arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is more of a pep rally for thousands of employees than a typical annual meeting. Shareholders attend, including members of the Walton family, who collectively own just over half of Wal-Mart's shares. But the largest and loudest contingent is 14,000 workers from around the world, including store workers and truck drivers.

The associates, as Wal-Mart calls them, were picked by their peers and managers to attend Friday's meeting and other events throughout the week, including concerts featuring Elton John and country signer Luke Bryan. Friday's meeting was hosted by actor Hugh Jackman and featured performers such as John Legend.

This year there were also several protests by OUR Walmart, a union-backed group that hopes to get the attention of the Walton family and other shareholders. OUR Walmart wants Wal-Mart to publicly commit to providing full-time work with a minimum wage of $25,000 a year.

Kalpona Akter, a former garment worker from Bangladesh who presented a defeated shareholder proposal at the company's 2011 annual meeting, joined the workers to push Wal-Mart for changes throughout the week. She presented a proposal at Friday's meeting seeking power for owners of 10 percent of outstanding shares to call special meetings.

"We have a supply chain out of control, and a failed safety inspection system, in a country (Bangladesh) where apparel workers are dying by the hundreds. Could there be any more pressing case for a special meeting of shareholders?"

The company continues to face pressure from some shareholders over other issues, including the alleged bribery of officials in Mexico and a supposed cover-up of the issue reported by the New York Times in 2012.

The New York City Pension Funds said it would vote its more than 5.1 million shares against nine of Wal-Mart's 14 board nominees - including Chairman S. Robson Walton and Chief Executive Mike Duke.

It is concerned about what it says has been the board's poor oversight of compliance as well as a lack of overall independence. Last year, the New York City funds opposed the election of five directors.

Despite the protests, Wal-Mart has continued to increase sales and profits, and its shares have risen.

The $15 billion stock repurchase plan is Wal-Mart's first new authorization in two years.

WAGE DISPUTE

Some 100 OUR Walmart members who work for Wal-Mart traveled to Arkansas to protest what they say are Wal-Mart's illegal attempts to silence critics who want to see changes at the company.

Wal-Mart employs about 2.2 million people, including 1.4 million in the United States, where it is the largest private employer. It says that its national average wage for full-time hourly workers is $12.67 an hour and has not released other figures. The majority of its hourly associates are full-time workers.

Wages vary in the retail industry, depending on tenure, the type of work done and other factors. According to data from the National Retail Federation, retail wages averaged $13.24 an hour in 2010. At that rate, an employee working 40 hours a week every week would earn $27,539.20 annually.

OUR Walmart, part of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, cites IBISWorld data from several years back that showed Wal-Mart associates, on average, earn $8.81 an hour. Its members also complain that they are not scheduled for enough hours, sometimes getting as few as 19 or 22 hours per week. Some Wal-Mart workers use tax-payer funded programs to support their families.

OUR Walmart says that it is not a union itself, though its members do pay $5 monthly dues.

Rose Campbell, a 58 year old who says she has worked for Walmart for four years, said that she is considered a full-time employee but typically does not get enough hours to work.

She joined OUR Walmart a year and a half ago.

"I'm fighting for my rights to have things better at Walmart," said Campbell, who makes $9.60 an hour in her maintenance job at an Illinois store.

Members of the family of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton rank among the richest people in the world. They collectively own roughly 1.67 billion shares of Wal-Mart, or 50.76 percent of the company's outstanding stock.

Wal-Mart's chairman had a net worth of $26.1 billion as of March, according to the Forbes list of billionaires, making him the 17th richest person on the list.

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