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Walmart Files Restraining Order on Protesters as Shareholder Meeting Boasts 'Glitz, Songs, Stock Buyback'

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

As striking Walmart workers and supporters headed from around the country to protest the retail giant's annual stockholder meeting in Fayetteville, Ark., the corporation issued a restraining order on several Walmart labor groups and banned protesters from going near the meeting.

Shareholders fill Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus for the annual Wal-Mart shareholders' meeting in Fayetteville, Ark. (April L. Brown / Associated Press) The Los Angeles Times reports:

Armed with a temporary restraining order against demonstrators and a $15-billion stock buyback program for investors, Walmart held its annual shareholder meeting Friday.

The company is facing renewed scrutiny over its labor practices at home and the working conditions of those who produce its cheap clothes abroad after the deaths of more than 1,100 workers in a Bangladesh building collapse.

To preempt protesters, Walmart sought, and was granted, a temporary restraining order against the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Organization United for Respect at Walmart and other unnamed defendants from a judge in Benton County, Arkansas.

According to the order, these organizers were prohibited from: “entering onto or inside Walmart’s private property in the State of Arkansas to engage in activities such as picketing, patrolling, parading, demonstrations, 'flash mobs,' handbilling, solicitation, and manager confrontations,” among other acts.

Some Walmart critics, however, did manage to get into the shareholder meeting on Friday, including Kalpona Akter, the executive director of the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity and former garment factory worker in Bangladesh.

Akter spoke in turn inside the meeting and urged Walmart to address worker safety conditions in their factories around the world such as the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh that collapsed last month killing more than 1,100 workers.

“If the world’s largest retailer refuses to address the state of workers’ rights and working conditions seriously, things will not change,” Akter, said in a statement emailed to The Los Angeles Times before she spoke at the meeting.

“The last six months have seen two of the worst disasters in the entire history of the garment industry,” said Kalpona Akter, a union activist in Bangladesh, referring to the Rana Plaza collapse and the Tazreen fire. “Both occurred in buildings where Walmart goods were produced.”

“Don’t you agree that the factories where Walmart products are made should be safe for the workers?” she said.

Walmart recently refused to sign an agreement between a number of Western brands to improve working conditions in their subcontracted factories there.

The legally binding agreement, signed by retailers including H&M, Primark, C&A, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Zara, Tesco and others, "aims to compel retailers to pay for rigorous and independent public inspections and blacklist any factories unwilling to comply," the Guardian reported.

Additionally, Janet Sparks who works at a Walmart in Baker, La, and is a shareholder, also spoke out, urging the company to pay its employees livable wages and to fix its exploitative scheduling policies—both issues which have garnered widespread Walmart workers' strikes throughout the year.

“Times are tough for many Walmart associates, too. We are stretching our paychecks to pay our bills and support our families,” said Ms. Sparks, a member of the union-affiliated employee group OUR Walmart.

Meanwhile, Walmart, oozing with profits, took the opportunity at the shareholder meeting amongst appearances by Hugh Jackman, Tom Cruise, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, dancers and a "giant puppet of a white elephant," to announce to its shareholders a $15-billion buyback program.

“Our strong cash flow enabled the company to invest in growth and repurchase over $14 billion of our stock during the last two years,” Charles Holley, Walmart executive vice president said at the meeting, which Reuters described as filled with "glitz, songs and stock buyback."

“We're pleased to continue our share repurchase program with this new $15 billion authorization,” Holley said.

Walmart’s stock prices remain close to an all-time high.

The New York Times adds:

As expected, none of the shareholders’ proposals passed. The founding Walton family owns more than 50 percent of shares, making it impossible to pass any measures without their support. Likewise, despite opposition from some large pension funds and proxy-advisory firms, all 14 directors up for re-election were reinstated. Walmart said it would release a detailed breakdown of the votes on Monday, which would signal how dissatisfied outside investors are with the company and board.

Yet the portion of the meeting where investors could speak amounted to about 15 minutes of an almost four-hour meeting.

The rest of it was devoted to Walmart’s version of its story.

Walmart strikers and protesters will, however, continue to protest in Fayetteville and Bentonville throughout the rest of Walmart's 'shareholders week'.

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