Updated 2:07 p.m.
Bernie Sanders didn't have his usual adoring crowds at his Wednesday campaign stop. That's because he spoke to Walmart shareholders at their annual meeting.
The Vermont senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate presented a proposal aimed at giving workers representation on the company's board, echoing a policy he is reportedly working on. (Elizabeth Warren has released a similar policy.)
In his remarks to shareholders, Sanders not only talked about board representation, but also said the company pays its workers too little, thereby forcing them to rely on government safety net programs.
"Frankly, the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in this country," he said.
It's not just Sanders. This is an example of a tactic that has gained traction in the 2020 presidential race: candidates calling out specific companies in their campaigning and their policies.
Sanders presented the resolution on behalf of Cat Davis, a Walmart worker and shareholder, and a leader of the group United for Respect, which aims to protect workers' rights at large corporations.
The proposal would require that the board include hourly associates on its lists of potential new members. The resolution is not expected to pass; voting results are expected Wednesday afternoon.
Candidates vs. corporations
Sanders in 2018 already took aim at Walmart with the Stop WALMART Act — "WALMART" here standing for "Welfare for Any Large Monopoly Amassing Revenue from Taxpayers." That bill would have stopped large employers from undertaking stock buybacks unless they take particular steps to boost workers, like paying them at least $15 an hour.
He has introduced another bill with a pointed acronym, the Stop BEZOS Act (That is "Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies") — a title aimed at Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. That bill would tax large employers for the social safety net programs, like food stamps, that their workers use.
Technology firms have also come under scrutiny among candidates, as they are under scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Sen. Warren of Massachusetts in March released a plan to break up big tech companies, with the aim of allowing smaller companies to thrive. In her unveiling, she called out particular companies by name.
"My administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition — including breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google," Warren wrote in a March Medium post. Since then, Sanders and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have voiced support for her plan.
In addition, strikes at the grocery store chain Stop & Shop drew support from candidates including Warren, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden. Similarly, strikes at McDonald's restaurants have drawn support from multiple candidates.
Rising populism on display
"We were always struggling with, 'How do you make policy tangible?' " said Amanda Renteria, political director for the 2016 Clinton campaign. "And that's a really easy way to do so. People know what Walmart is. People have a conception about it."
But Clinton rarely referenced specific companies negatively on the 2016 campaign trail.
"That really wasn't her style," said Renteria.
It's a tactic that relatively few major candidates have made central to their campaigns in recent years. But the willingness to aggressively call out big companies was arguably long in coming.
"I feel like the political moment we're in is really an outgrowth of really the worker militancy that started in 2012, 2013," said Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of Our Revolution, an advocacy group that grew out of Sanders' 2016 presidential run.
He's talking about walkouts among fast food workers and other low-wage workers that took place in those years (at the time, he was at worker-advocacy group Good Jobs Nation).
Those walkouts themselves had a variety of even older potential causes, he added – long-building inequality; a long, slow recovery from the Great Recession; and the subsequent Occupy Movement, for example.
But whatever the path, the culmination is a political atmosphere where anger is a dominant emotion — and something Trump, as well as liberal figures, has modeled.
"We have been in a populist moment over the last six, seven years," Geevarghese said. "I think Occupy, the strike wave, those are all symbols of that. But I also think Donald Trump is a symbol of the populist wave, at least when it comes to his willingness to go after companies like GM, companies like Carrier."
For her part, Renteria credits Sanders and Warren with having popularized tough anti-corporate rhetoric as a campaign strategy. But she also cautions that it might not work for everyone.
"For somebody like Elizabeth Warren, she has been in this space since the beginning of her career, and so for her it's just validating her brand," Renteria said.
That means calling out Amazon or Walmart seems authentic for candidates like Sanders, Warren and Trump. It might not have for a candidate like Clinton, and could be a stretch for other Democrats running in 2020.
"I think if other candidates were to take a look at this and go, 'Wow, I can do it too. It makes whatever policy I'm working on more concrete,' that could backfire," Renteria said.
In addition, there's the simple possibility that this kind of rhetoric could create powerful corporate enemies for a candidate at a time when unlimited money is pouring into the coffers of superPACs.
But then, an event like the Walmart shareholders' meeting does allow a candidate to have a media moment that an ordinary policy release might not create. And that's particularly important in a field of about two dozen candidates.
Walmart is one of NPR's financial sponsors.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
All right. Some of the presidential candidates have been calling out brand names as they campaign. Elizabeth Warren wants to break up Amazon, she says. Kamala Harris says McDonald's underpays its workers. Bernie Sanders is addressing Walmart's shareholders at their annual meeting today. Sanders is presenting a proposal on behalf of workers to get representation on the board and also lobbying for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is covering the 2020 campaign and is in our studios.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How does Bernie Sanders get access to a shareholders meeting, which, I think, is a closed universe there, isn't it?
KURTZLEBEN: Right, yeah. I mean, that's a good question because, like his campaign told me, he is not a Walmart shareholder but he will be there on behalf of Cat Davis. She is a Walmart associate. Aside from that, she is a leader of a group that campaigns for worker rights at different retailers, including at Walmart.
INSKEEP: Walmart associate - that means someone who works at Walmart. Is that right?
INSKEEP: OK, go on.
KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely, yeah. She's a Walmart employee. And so he is going to present a proposal on her behalf. She has said, he's my representative for the day. And that proposal, yeah, would say that Walmart has to consider at least hourly workers in adding them to their board, so this could mean Walmart hourly workers being on the Walmart board. Now, this proposal, by the way, just so happens to dovetail with the policy that The Washington Post has reported that Sanders is working on. That proposal would give workers more power at corporations, including seats on their boards. Elizabeth Warren has put out a similar policy, by the way. So this isn't - he's not alone in this. But speaking last week in Nevada, he really called out Walmart. He said this is a preview of his remarks to the Walmart shareholders.
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BERNIE SANDERS: So my message to the Walton family is we are sick and tired of subsidizing you. Pay your workers a living wage.
KURTZLEBEN: Right, so he's talking about more than board representation there. He's also talking about pay.
KURTZLEBEN: He has a lot of complaints against Walmart.
INSKEEP: Just to be clear, when he says we're sick and tired of subsidizing you, what is he saying there about low-paid workers?
KURTZLEBEN: He's talking about the fact that low-paid workers, even while they may have full-time jobs, may also be on food stamps, for example, using the social safety net that the federal government and state governments provide.
INSKEEP: So he's saying, we're paying for this. That's got to end. He wants to make changes in things such as corporate boards that might change the incentives and change the motivations...
INSKEEP: ...Or at least change who has the power at a company.
INSKEEP: But why would Sanders, among other candidates, be calling out specific companies in this way rather than calling for broader changes in policy?
KURTZLEBEN: Sure. So I mean, leaving aside that, of course, people like Bernie Sanders - Elizabeth Warren is another person, like we've mentioned. They have sincere beliefs that some of these companies are doing wrong. But aside from that, you know, there are a few things. One is that, you know, when you mention a company, especially a name brand...
KURTZLEBEN: ...Like Amazon, Walmart, Google, Facebook, whatever - companies that people are familiar with - it makes your policy ideas more concrete. So Bernie Sanders talks about the topic of income inequality, which, to a lot of voters, might be a big, nebulous thing. But if Bernie Sanders says, I think that Walmart is contributing to income inequality, that might make it more concrete, more understandable for voters who might shop there, know people who work there, that sort of thing.
INSKEEP: And just in terms of storytelling, you have a villain then, I suppose. Don't you?
KURTZLEBEN: Most definitely, yeah. And you get to be the person who's taking on the man and sticking it to the man kind of.
INSKEEP: Danielle, thanks so much.
KURTZLEBEN: Of course.
INSKEEP: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben in our studios this morning.
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INSKEEP: And we should mention that a bunch of the companies that we just mentioned - Walmart, Amazon, Google, Facebook, among others - they are among NPR's financial sponsors.
(SOUNDBITE OF YPPAH'S "OCCASIONAL MAGIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.