FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- "Fifty years of Walmart, baby. Can you handle that?"
Words that never before escaped the mouth of Aerosmith's Steven Tyler set a stadium of Walmart workers on fire on Wednesday night. Wearing white skin-tight bell bottoms and flanked by a massive video screen flashing what resembled '80s-era pole dancers, the rocker called out to Walmart workers in succession, from the United Kingdom, China and Brazil.
Waves of workers rose up, each set for the most part decked in yet another color of the spectrum, their T-shirts inscribed with the company motto Save Money. Live Better. A row of women screamed, "WE LOVE YOU!" -- their game-day shirts bore single letters that together spelled out "STEVEN."
The occasion celebrated Walmart's 2012 shareholders meeting. Each year the company flies in 5,000 workers or "associates" -- one from every store in the world -- for a week of festivities. Wednesday's concert took place at the Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, Ark., a 20-minute drive from Walmart's headquarters in Bentonville. Part business function, part music festival and pep rally, the activities have also drawn analysts, reporters, labor groups, Walmart suppliers and anyone with Walmart stock.
This year, which is Walmart's 50th anniversary, the company planned Friday's shareholders meeting and the week-long party leading up to it to be even bigger blowouts than usual. Yet this year's meeting is also overshadowed by a scandal that erupted after The New York Times published an April story alleging that Walmart had bribed officials in Mexico some $24 million to fuel its rapid growth in that country. Walmart is currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and Congress for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Three large pension funds owning stakes in the company have vowed to vote against some members of Walmart's board of directors, including CEO Mike Duke, former CEO Lee Scott and Chairman Rob Walton. Labor groups and anti-Walmart protesters have also made the pilgrimage to the shareholders meeting, where they are trying to sway workers.
Though Walmart's board will likely be reelected without a hitch -- the Walton family owns almost 50 percent of the company's stock -- the shareholders meeting on Friday might break the festive mood. During the four-hour affair, anyone can take a turn at the microphone. Walmart associates in attendance will also have a vote, as they are shareholders via Walmart's 401(k) plan.
On Wednesday, Walmart officials were all birthday smiles. "There’s a lot of energy surrounding our 50th anniversary," declared Walmart spokeswoman Dianna Gee in an email. "Our business has strong momentum and that’s reflected in the excitement our associates and shareholders have shown here this week."
The security force presented a different story. While walking to the concert from a busy parking lot to the press entrance of the Bud Walton Arena to meet Gee, I was stopped by a police officer who said I was "under arrest for criminally trespassing."
Explaining that I was a reporter there to cover the concert, I gave him a business card. "I don't care who you are. I'm going to put you in handcuffs," he shouted. I suggested he might be making a mistake by arresting me and that he first speak to a Walmart publicist. He refused and instead took my ID for a background check.
Gee eventually came to my rescue. Apparently I was mistaken for a protestor handing out pamphlets. "It was a misunderstanding," the cop informed me brusquely.
Later Gee gushed apologies. "As part of our efforts to provide a safe event, we work with local law enforcement to provide security services for all of those in attendance," she wrote in an email. "We regret the mix-up and are thankful we were able to resolve the matter quickly. We appreciate your understanding and are glad you’ve been able to continue to celebrate with us."
In jeans and a short-sleeved button-down shirt, I fit in with the crowds of associates in T-shirts and shorts, though I lacked a Walmart-branded lanyard coated with pins and buttons, which most employees sported. There must be someone else who looks just like you, Gee and the cop said.
That was not the first time I was stopped by one of the police officers hired by Walmart for security at its meeting. Early Wednesday morning while walking across campus, another policer officer, much more friendly, stopped me because he thought I "just didn't blend in." He also performed a background check and said I couldn't walk around the area -- an order he later revised -- or talk to any associates.
Labor groups were having even more trouble. On Tuesday night, officials kicked out Janet Sparks, 52, a Walmart customer service manager in Baker, La., from a Carrie Underwood concert for handing out pamphlets. She is a member of OUR Walmart; other members of her associate organization were also banned from the campus.
"Even though I'm a shareholder, I was thrown out," said Sparks, who had attended the meeting two years ago after being selected by her manager to represent their store. "That was a completely different experience."
Many associates at the meeting might be a tough sell for the protesters. None of five associates I interviewed at length on Wednesday had yet cast a shareholder vote or read Walmart's proxy statement. They were much more excited about the supplier fun fair, a carnival where Walmart vendors provide free food and product samples -- and the concerts.
Some employees at the event appeared so pumped up about Walmart they could barely hold back from sharing stories about the company's greatness. "I see Sam Walton as a genius," Alan Benson, 29, a Sam's Club electronics supervisor in Baltimore, said about Walmart's founder. "And I'm glad he was because now we all have jobs."
Like other workers, Benson received a free vacation from Walmart; he had never been on a plane before. Walmart paid for Benson's trip, housed him in a University of Arkansas dormitory, gave him a tour of headquarters and hired mega-stars like Aerosmith for entertainment.
"It makes you feel good about the place you work and the job you do," said J.D. Rebecca, 43, an overnight customer service manager from Marietta, Ohio.
CLARIFICATION: While OUR Walmart members say they disagree with some of Walmart's current business practices, they do not oppose the company as a whole and do not consider themselves anti-Walmart.