18,000 Wal-Mart stockholders — minus yours truly (my one share notwithstanding) — gathered June 6th. in the Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas to celebrate another year gone by for the world’s largest retailer. The group rejected a series of reforms offered by stockholders, including a change in who sits on the board. Six of the 14 members of the Wal-Mart board are either past or present executives or members of Sam Walton’s family. Big company, small circle of control. Shareholders’ proposals that also were rejected included a plan to report how many women and minorities were in management positions, and labor standards for factories that do business with Wal-Mart. The company is being sued in 30 states by its own workers over wage-and-hour violations, and for sexual discriminatin. This year’s crop of shareholder proposals are similar to ones rejected in previous years. CEO Lee Scott told shareholders that “Wal-Mart is a good place to work. Wal-Mart is a good place to build a career. We want people to know that having a Wal-Mart in your neighborhood is a good thing.” Scott also said that Wal-Mart growth this coming year would not slow down. “Wal-Mart has room to grow. We are a large company. But the truth is, we are a growth company.” Wal-Mart projects addings 210 supercenters in the year that began last February, plus 45 to 55 discount stores, 20 to 25 smaller Neighborhood Centers, and 15 Sam’s Clubs. Most of Wal-Mart’s new stores will, in fact, be discount stores converted into supercenters.Scott responded to criticism that Wal-Mart has destroyed thousands of small businesses, claiming that Wal-Mart had “raised the standard of living” in America, and created jobs and taxes at the local level.On the subject of forcing workers to labor “off the clock”, Scott said “We have a responsibility to pay every employee every hour they work.” Critics say that Wal-Mart grocery jobs often replace higher wage union jobs — thus creating a “race to the bottom” as other employers try to cut costs to match Wal-Mart’s labor advantage. After all, you have never seen a Wal-Mart ad that says: “Everyday high wages”.
The fact that Scott had to make that last statement at an Annual Meeting is pretty pathetic. The plethora of lawsuits filed by Wal-Mart employees suggests that Wal-Mart’s “responsibility” may not square with “reality” on the sales floor. As for revenues, studies done across the country reveal that most Wal-Mart sales are at the expense of other merchants, and that net job generation must count employment lost at other businesses. Wal-Mart has been called the SARS of retailing: it has the potential to make anyone sick, and can kill the already weakened. And what other CEO in America has to tell his stockholders that having the company store as a neighbor is a good thing? From the reports filed everyday on this website, there are hundreds of communities that aren’t swinging at Wal-Mart’s pitch.