The world’s largest private employer conducts its shareholder meetings in a college sports arena with more than enough seating for the 14,000 employees estimated to attend. The proceedings began with a rousing rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung by an employee of Sam’s Club while a colossal computer-generated flag waves behind her. The chairman of the board welcomed the crowd, followed by a big dance number meant to showcase the global tapestry that is Wal-Mart’s workforce. And that was just the warm-up act.
Enter a smiling Hugh Jackman.
“Hello, world of Walmart!” the actor said at the 2013 Walmart shareholders’ meeting, held last Friday in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Musicians Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson and John Legend performed some of their hit songs. Even Tom Cruise was there to deliver a speech about how the company is “using its size and scale to improve women’s lives around the world.”
Cruise’s speech came after a string of lawsuits and EEOC complaints against Walmart, alleging systematic discrimination against female employees across the country. In June 2011, the Supreme Court tossed out a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit brought by 1.5 million past and present female Walmart employees. More recently, thousands of women have filed EEOC complaints alleging discrimination.
While celebrity appearances—especially from Cruise and Jackman—often sound like advertisements for the wisdom and benevolence of Walmarts’ corporate governance, all of the stars are working pro bono.
“We do not pay performance fees for celebrity guests,” Walmart spokesperson Dianna Gee told msnbc. The company does cover hotel and travel expenses, but otherwise pays celebrities only in exposure for their latest projects.
“Every entertainer that is here has something to do with our business,” said Gee. “There’s some connection from the business, whether it’s CDs, books, or t-shirts.” Film studios and record labels “really work with us” to recruit the talent.
Walmart shareholder meetings have been featuring celebrity guests for years. In 2012, Justin Timberlake hosted the proceedings; the year before, it was Will Smith. Taylor Swift, Ben Stiller, Miley Cyrus and Mariah Carey have all put in past appearances as well.
As host, Timberlake starred in a pre-taped skit about what would happen if he left Hollywood to become an entry-evel Walmart employee. The answer: He would gain new respect for the company’s hard-working, dedicated employees, but decide he preferred life as a musical icon.
“Walmart’s awesome and everything actually does cost less,” he tells his agent at the end of the skit. “But these people actually work their butts off.”
In addition to providing a great opportunity for cross-promotion, celebrity guest appearances are “truly our way of saying thank you to our associates,” said Gee. If the volume of applause from the audience is any indication, most of the employees invited to the meeting appreciate the gesture. But not everyone was impressed.
“I would say that, as entertainers, I think they did a great job … but what they said on stage didn’t really represent many of the workers, and it’s unfortunate that celebrity appearances can overshadow some of the very real issues that everyday people face at Walmart,” said Tsehai Almaz, a Los Angeles-based Walmart employee.
Two weeks ago, Almaz and roughly 100 other Walmart workers went on strike in response to what they say are poor working conditions and poverty-level wages at the retail giant. In addition, Almaz has filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC), saying she has been the victim of sex-based discrimination in the workplace. Tom Cruise’s speech about all the good Walmart does for women around the world “was out of touch and didn’t really tell the truth about what happens on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
Cruise did not directly address any of the allegations in his speech, but instead declared Walmart a “role model for how business can address some of the biggest issues facing our world, in ways big and small.”
“I’ve wanted to come here, for this thing, for quite some time, actually,” he told employees at the Walmart shareholders’ meeting. “Because the culture you have going on here is really like no other.”
Gee said she was unsure of whether the celebrity speeches were vetted, or what the process for that might be. All of the guests are a surprise until they take the stage—even to Walmart’s media relations team.
“We didn’t write the speeches, I can tell you that,” she said, speaking of the media relations department.
Tom Cruise’s publicist declined to speak on the record for this article. Spokespeople for Justin Timberlake and Hugh Jackman did not respond to requests for comment.