Walmart's annual shareholders meeting is always a feel-good event complete with celebrity surprise guests, but this year some of its own employees plan to show up without an invitation.
Employees and activists said they will stage a protest outside the shareholders meeting to support workers' demands for a pay increase to minimum $25,000 a year for full-time employment.
Among those on the picket line will be Walmart Moms, dramatizing the number of working mothers trying to provide for their families on the low wages paid by America's biggest employer.
Charmaine Givens-Thomas, a longtime Walmart employee and shareholder, traveled from Chicago, where she is on strike from her job, to speak before the crowd of shareholders and employees on the first day of the event, held at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark.
She told the crowd: "A majority of Walmart associates in the United States are paid less than $25,000 a year. I'm a mom and a grandmother now. And even after my eight years at Walmart, I only make $23,000."
Her proposal that Chairman Rob Walton be replaced by an independent family outsider was rejected.
Always an extravaganza, this year's shareholders meeting was hosted by singer Harry Connick Jr. and featured performances by Pharrell Williams and Sarah McLachlan.
The demonstration in Fayetteville, Ark., follows several days of protests this week at Walmart stores across the nation. The tactics echo those taken only last month up to and at the shareholders meeting of another American corporate giant, McDonald's.
The labor union-supported workers' group is demanding a pay increase to $12.25 an hour, or $25,000 a year for full-time work.
On Wednesday morning, a 64-year-old cashier walked into a Walmart Supercenter in Chicopee, Mass., and handed her boss a letter detailing her reasons for going on strike. They included unreasonable scheduling, inadequate benefits and more.
According to MassLive.com, her boss took the letter, thanked her for it, and said, "Have a nice day."
Walmart employees now average about $8.80 an hour, which translates to less than $19,000 a year for full-time hours.
Those "Walmart Moms" will be at the head of the protest line because they are likely to make much less than their male co-workers.
A new report from Demos, a liberal think tank, estimates in a new study that American women who work in retail earn an average of $4 an hour less than their male counterparts. Women in retail earn $10.58 an hour on average, compared to $14.62 for men.
Senior Policy Analyst Amy Traub, author of the report, said several factors were to blame, including the number of women working part-time, sometimes involuntarily, and "flat-out discrimination."
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, a vocal supporter of the workers, compares their effort to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In a guest blog for The Christian Science Monitor, Reich writes: "Today, just like 50 years ago, people who have been treated as voiceless and disposable are standing up and demanding change."
The world's biggest retailer is still essentially controlled by one family, the heirs to founder Sam Walton. They own more than 50 percent of the stock of the company and hold key positions on its board of directors, including Chairman Rob Walton.
Among the first decisions shareholders made at Friday's session was to elevate Greg Penner, a board member, to vice chairman. That places him in line to possibly succeed Rob Walton as chairman. Penner is Rob Walton's son-in-law.
Still, they may face a tough crowd at this year's meeting. Walmart reported a fifth consecutive decline in U.S. sales in its latest quarterly earnings report, released last month.