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Bernie Sanders took his presidential campaign to the shareholder meeting of the nation’s largest employer, demanding that directors of Walmart Inc. give a seat on their board to an hourly worker.
The self-described democratic socialist on Wedensday also called on the company to “do the right thing” and end “grotesque” greed and income inequality by boosting minimum pay for its workers to $15 an hour, although that measure wasn’t the formal proposal put before the board.
The senator spoke for only a few minutes and then the Walmart board rejected the plan. He said the Waltons, who own the giant retailer, are “the wealthiest family in the world” but pay “starvation wages” to workers.
The appearance before the board gathered in Rogers, Arkansas, gave Sanders a platform to take on President Donald Trump over the state of the economy. The Vermont senator argues that the growth the president boasts about still leaves behind rural and Rust Belt voters whose disillusion over job losses and low wages helped power the Republican into the White House three years ago.
The intervention could also give Sanders some traction when the two dozen Democratic contenders begin to compete for coveted endorsements of the nation’s biggest labor unions. Hillary Clinton reaped the lion’s share when she and Sanders vied for the 2016 party nod, but this time unions could split as they weigh a group of mostly progressive candidates who are embracing their agenda, analysts said.
Sanders, with his frequent attacks on Walmart, Amazon and other major employers, has been contrasting himself with former Vice President Joe Biden, the more moderate front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination. Sanders also has been pulling some of the other contenders to the left on labor policy, said Democratic strategist Steve Rosenthal, who was political director of the AFL-CIO from 1996 to 2002.
“What Sanders has done is really raised the bar on the other candidates,” Rosenthal said, adding that there is a “sea change” among Democratic candidates who are embracing employee rights and promoting unions as a way to boost worker income.
After the meeting, Sanders spoke to a crowd of supporters, reprising some of the themes he brought up earlier. He contrasted the challenges facing Walmart workers paid $11 an hour and “living paycheck to paycheck” to what he said was the $175 billion fortune amassed by the Waltons.
“The country is watching, the country is so tired of this massive income inequality,” he said.
“All we are saying to Walmart and the Walton family is to pay your workers a living wage.” he said, “and that living wage is $15 an hour.”
Both Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in particular have put taking on individual companies and their executives at the center of their campaigns.
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