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Bernie Sanders takes his fight against Walmart to its annual meeting as 2020 primary heats up

Key Points
  • Bernie Sanders introduces a Walmart shareholder proposal to give workers a seat on the board.
  • He also calls on the giant retailer to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour.
VIDEO2:2102:21
Watch Bernie Sanders press Walmart over 'starvation wages'

Sen. Bernie Sanders took his crusade against Walmart to the mammoth retailer's annual meeting Wednesday, backing an ultimately failed push to give workers a spot on the company board.

The Vermont independent stopped in Bentonville, Arkansas, in the heat of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary to show support for Walmart's hourly associates. Sanders — who has long pushed the retailer to boost wages and benefits — sees condemnation of corporate titans as a way to separate himself from a crowded Democratic field.

The senator introduced a shareholder proposal — on behalf of Walmart employee and labor advocate Cat Davis — that would make the company's roughly 1.5 million hourly workers eligible for board nominations. Founder Sam Walton's family holds a majority of the company's shares and opposed the measure. 

"Walmart can strike a blow against corporate greed and a grotesque level of income and wealth inequality that exists in our country," Sanders said in a two-minute comment introducing the proposal and calling for wage increases at Walmart.

It failed overwhelmingly, the company said later Wednesday. 

Sanders' appearance holds obvious political benefits for the senator. He criticized Walmart's leadership while standing in the same room as its CEO Doug McMillon — and backed the working-class voters he hopes will help propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Frankly, the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in this country," Sanders added during his remarks, noting that some Walmart employees rely on public assistance programs such as Medicaid.

Protestors gather outside Walmart's shareholder meeting as Sen. Bernie Sanders was slated to speak at the event.
Amanda Lasky | CNBC

Protesters gathered outside the meeting — some from the group "United for Respect," which has pushed for a worker presence on Walmart's board — held signs supporting Sanders' 2020 campaign and calling for a $15 per hour minimum wage.

When Sanders confirmed last month he would attend the meeting, Walmart said it hoped the senator would "approach this visit not as a campaign stop, but as a constructive opportunity to learn about the ways we're working to provide increased economic opportunity, mobility and benefits to our associates."

Before Sanders spoke, McMillon highlighted the company's efforts to increase its starting wage to $11 per hour. He also called on Congress to pass a "thoughtful plan to increase" the federal minimum wage, taking into account "phasing and cost of living increases to avoid unintended consequences."

"It's clear by our actions, and those of other companies, that the federal minimum wage is lagging behind," McMillion said, adding "$7.25 is too low. "

On Wednesday, Sanders argued that a $15 per hour minimum wage "is not a radical idea." He noted that Walmart competitors such as Amazon and Target have started to phase in a $15 per hour pay floor.

As criticism of wealthy individuals and corporations has taken hold across the political spectrum, 2020 Democratic candidates have more directly targeted large corporations. Along with Walmart, Sanders has slammed Amazon and its CEO Jeff Bezos and helped to push the company to hike its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has also taken aim at corporate America, pushing to break up tech companies such as Amazon and Apple and agricultural giants such as Monsanto. Warren has proposed a plan to allow employees to select at least 40% of a company's board members.

Sanders and Warren's stances have distanced them from rivals like former Vice President Joe Biden, who has tried not to seem too hostile to corporate America.

During the campaign so far, presidential candidates have showed support for workers on strike at grocery chain Stop & Shop and other companies.

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