It’s Time for Bay Area Walmart Directors to Stand Up

The following is an Op-Ed by John L. Burton, Chairman of the California Democratic Party, Former President Pro Tempore of the California State Senate and Former Member, US House of Representatives.

The past year should have been a banner one for Walmart.  The company celebrated its 50-year anniversary and its stock reached an all-time high.  The Walton family, which largely controls the retail giant, includes four of the top 10 richest Americans and boasts a fortune of more than $115 billion.  But instead, 2012 has been a year of crisis for Walmart.    

In April, the New York Times published an expose alleging systemic bribery of government officials and a purported executive-led cover-up effort in the company’s Mexican division. The company is facing yet another gender discrimination lawsuit–on behalf of 100,000 women in California. And its supply chain has come under fire. Workers at seafood suppliers in Thailand and Louisiana went on strike to protest against slavery-like conditions, and warehouse workers who supply Walmart stores in Southern California and Chicago walked off their jobs to protest employer retaliation.

In the last month, strikes hit Walmart directly when associates in Los Angeles, Dallas and the Bay Area, to name a few places, walked off their jobs to protest retaliation against workers who spoke out about hours and pay in stores, among other issues. Last week, hundreds of Walmart associates traveled to company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. to tell executives and Walmart chairman Rob Walton that it’s time for change.

Workers are tired of watching Walmart management retaliate against those who speak out to improve their stores.  But it shouldn’t just be Walmart Associates standing up.  Four members of the company’s board of directors are Bay area residents, and they should play leadership roles in helping a company sorely in need of change chart a new course.

The Bay Area Walmart directors include Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer; venture capitalist and Facebook board member Jim Breyer; Clinton Cabinet member Aida Alvarez; and Walton-by-marriage, Greg Penner.  They have ignored repeated efforts by Walmart workers – members of the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart) – to discuss change at the company.

Instead of pretending the workers don’t exist, they should join Walmart Associates in promoting a vision of a better Walmart, where everyone is respected on the job and where Walmart jobs are good, stable ones with livable wages that support families. Walmart is the largest private employer in the world and the US, and is also the nation’s largest employer of African-Americans, Latinos and of women. If Walmart workers can change the company’s course, they will have helped catalyze a transformation of the entire American economy.      

Ms. Mayer and Mr. Bryer, as leaders in the new economy, and Ms. Alvarez, as a respected leader in the Latino community, can especially bring a fresh perspective to Walmart that helps the company find common ground with its employees instead of maintaining a decades-old strategy of confrontation. They should take a lesson from the brave Walmart associates who were in Bentonville last week and stand up for what is right, and for a better Walmart.  

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