At Walmart's Shareholders' Meeting: Celebrities, Spin and Dissent

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AP, Gareth PattersonWalmart U.S. CEO Bill Simon.
Inside Walmart's (WMT) annual shareholders' meeting in Fayetteville, Ark., there's plenty of star power and entertainment.

Actor Hugh Jackman is serving as master of ceremonies. Entertainment for the day is being provided by Kelly Clarkson and Grammy-winning singer-songwriter John Legend. Tom Cruise showed up to talk about corporate social responsibility. CEO Mike Duke presided over an on-stage soccer exhibition using one of the retailer's ubiquitous rubber balls (two for $3!). And of course, executives have delivered sales figures and projection to cheering crowds of shareholders and associates.

But it's not all glitz and glamor. This year's shareholders' meeting comes at a time of turmoil for the world's largest retailer, which finds itself dealing with empty shelves, labor unrest, bribery scandals and tumbling sales.

The Mexican bribery case, which has now widened to include Brazil, China and India, is one source of contention at the meeting. One proposal by activist shareholders specifically references the company's investigation into violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: It asks that the company disclose whenever it recoups executive compensation as a result of ethical violations or other breaches of company policy. The board of directors urged shareholders to reject that proposal, insisting that SEC disclosure rules made it unnecessary.

(The company did pay lip service to these complaints, though, with Chairman Rob Walton insisting that the board was continuing to investigate the allegations, and remarking that "acting with integrity is not negotiable.")

The New York Times also cites the worries of Calpers, the nation's largest public pension fund and a large Walmart shareholder, which expressed concern about both the bribery scandal and disasters at Bangladesh factories that made clothes for Walmart and other retailers. As the Times notes, however, these proposals are largely symbolic -- the Walton family controls more than half the company's shares, so while disgruntled shareholders could make a scene, there no chance of them voting down directors.

There's also dissent from aggrieved workers. In the past year, Walmart workers have staged walkouts and complained of retaliation, and labor groups are using the shareholders meeting as an opportunity to make their voices heard. Bentonville, Ark., home of Walmart's corporate headquarters, saw protests on behalf of Walmart workers this week. But the company didn't take them lying down -- a Walmart executive dismissed protesters as "paid agents" and the company got a court order keeping them off Walmart property.

Between the celebrities and the raucous cheering in the packed stands, the shareholders' gathering has the feel of a pep rally or political convention. But not everyone is cheering.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.

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