Excursion to WallyWorld
By Rev. Jonalu Johnstone
Amid aerial dancers and drummers (yes, drummers suspended by ropes!) and cheering associates, Wal-Mart opened their annual stockholders meeting, an extravaganza resembling a high dollar variety show crossed with a oversized high school pep rally. Emceed by Queen Latifah and sprinkled with performances by Joss Stone, Jennifer Hudson, and brand new American Idol David Cook, the meeting featured videos from stores around the world, presentations of awards and recognitions, frequent outbreaks of the Wal-Mart cheer, and oh, yeah, some reports and stockholder proposals.
I had come to the meeting to present a proposal on behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to add “gender identity” to the company’s non-discrimination policy. The proposal was among eight presented by various unions and other stockholder organizations, nudging Wal-Mart towards more progressive policies. Presenters were met at their own table near the north entrance of the University of Arkansas basketball arena, and assigned a handler who made sure they found their seat and had whatever they needed (water, coffee, etc.).
Among the proposals were limits on executive compensation, reporting of political contributions, and formation of a Human Rights Committee. Presenters were taken seriously enough that Chairman Rob Walton greeted us before we spoke, and at one point, he even asked the audience of 20,000 to curb their conversations during the presentation.
Actually, the crowd was polite during our presentations. My own heart was pounding (I had never spoken to such a large crowd) as I saw my image projected on the screen at the front of the stadium. My three minutes went fine, and there was courteous applause.
Clearly, Wal-Mart has paid some attention to its critics. They have improved associate (employee) access to health insurance, and bragged frequently through the meeting about environmental improvements. In fact, the winner of the Sam Walton Entrepreneurship Award presented at the meeting was their Sustainability Team.
I couldn’t help wondering, though, as CFO Tom Schoewe offered his seamless, high quality, high tech financial report, what the company might be able to do with that cash flow they’ve freed up so much of. Could they improve workers’ conditions and salaries? Could they advance their touted environmental goals more? Could they ensure safe environments for workers who produce Wal-Mart goods?
When a vote was taken on the UUA’s proposal, the resolution received support from six percent of the shareholders. While this is a smaller percentage than we had hoped, it is not insignificant and more than double the amount necessary to allow us to re-file the proposal next year. This will allow us to continue to stay engaged with this company and continue our dialogue.
Rev. Jonalu Johnstone is Associate Minister of the First Unitarian Unviersalist Church of Oklahoma City, and President of Interweave Continental, the Unitarian Universalist organization for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender concerns.