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Churches Plan Showdown over Wal-Mart Pay Gap

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. The annual Wal-Mart shareholder meeting is tomorrow in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Up for a vote are several resolutions that company leaders don't like. For more than a decade religious groups with small holdings of Wal-Mart shares have been working to change company policies. And as NPR's Greg Allen reports, they've had some success.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Susan Mica(ph) is with the Benedictine Sisters of Burney, Texas. The order owns 500 shares of Wal-Mart stock. The resolution they're offering at this week's shareholder meeting would order Wal-Mart to prepare a comparison of the salary and benefits paid to top executives with the wages of its lowest paid workers. Mica says her order did their own study comparing Wal-Mart's CEO Lee Scott's $17.5 million pay package in 2004 with the average worker pay of $9.68 per hour.

Sister SUSAN MICA (Benedictine Sisters of Burney, Texas): And the difference between that was like a thousand to one. Many other large companies had a disparity of 431 to one in 2004. And so in many ways this is out of kilter.

ALLEN: Wal-Mart has filed a statement opposing the resolution. A company spokesman declined to comment further but says Wal-Mart takes seriously all shareholder concerns. These kind of disputes have been going on since the early 1970s. At that time the issues were South African Apartheid and opposition to the war in Vietnam. More than 30 years later, faith based investors have broadened their reach. They now work to promote fair labor standards, good environmental practices and many other issues. This year, religious groups are offering resolutions at shareholder meetings at more than 150 corporations. Sister Mica...

Sister MICA: If we owe one share in the company, we're a part owner of the company and we feel that part of our mission then is to raise questions if we disagree with the policies of that company.

ALLEN: Another resolution under consideration asks Wal-Mart to prepare a sustainability report, a document outlining the company's strategies concerning economic, social and environmental issues and development. That resolution was filed by the United Methodist Church. But even before the vote, it's clear that resolution, the one on executive compensation and four others proposed by shareholders, are all likely to fail. That's because nearly half of the company's stock is held by members of the Walton Family and other company insiders. Sister Pat Wolf(ph) heads the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, an umbrella group representing 275 faith-based institutional investors with combined portfolios worth some $110 billion. Her group has been involved in talks with Wal-Mart on a variety of issues for the past 13 years and she says, they've had some success.

Last year, for example, Wolf says the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, New Jersey, proposed a resolution requiring the company to make public information about the diversity of it's workforce. The resolution received 18 percent of the vote.

Sister PAT WOLF (Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility): Somebody will say, oh, you failed, you only received 18 percent of the vote. But in all truth, when 40 percent of the shares are owned by the Wal-Mart family, 18 percent of the vote is a pretty significant showing that people do expect some kind of change.

ALLEN: Just a few months ago, the company posted that information online. A Wal-Mart spokesman says the shareholder vote was just one of several factors that led the company to finally make the information public. Wolf says not all of her group's member organizations are involved in the Wal-Mart campaign. Because they're critical of the company's labor and environmental practices, many have divested themselves of Wal-Mart stock. But over the last decade, she says the group has been instrumental in convincing Wal-Mart to take greater responsibility for labor conditions at its supplier factories and to respect workers rights to organize unions. All reasons why religious investors will be well represented at tomorrows shareholder meeting in Fayetteville. Greg Allen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
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