OUR Walmart members speak with Walmart executives, June 16, 2011. (Flickr/OUR Walmart)

Last week, in a previously unreported e-mail, a senior Walmart official informed a union-affiliated warehouse workers group that the retail giant was breaking off a nascent dialogue with the organization. The January 11 e-mail came one day after the labor group, Warehouse Workers United, published an open letter to Walmart’s board blasting the company’s latest plans for monitoring working conditions in its warehouses. It came four days before Walmart announced plans to improve the scheduling system in its retail stores, which has long drawn criticism from another union-backed workers group, OUR Walmart.

“It’s unfortunate that Walmart appears to not be willing to engage in a dialogue at this stage,” WWU Director Nick Allen told The Nation Thursday.

WWU, a project of the labor federation Change to Win, organizes non-union sub-contracted workers in Walmart distribution centers. Those workers move Walmart goods, often in Walmart-owned facilities, but are directly employed by logistics or staffing companies rather than by Walmart itself. In September, WWU spearheaded a strike by warehouse workers in Mira Loma, California, in protest of alleged retaliation. The next month, warehouse workers from California and Illinois joined striking Walmart retail store workers in demonstrations outside a Walmart shareholder meeting at Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters. During that trip, Walmart refused to meet collectively with the retail workers from OUR Walmart. But as first reported by The Nation, Walmart US Chief Administrative Officer Tom Mars met with a handful of members and staff from WWU and another union-backed group, the Warehouse Workers Organizing Committee..

Workers who attended that meeting told The Nation afterward that Mars listened attentively to their grievances and agreed to meet again in the future; they said it was too soon to tell whether anything would come of it. WWU’s Allen said earlier this month that the ball was in Walmart’s court, and that other than trading a few voicemails, there had been no follow-up from the company on scheduling the next meeting. But in a January 11 e-mail, Mars told Allen that there wouldn’t be one.

“Not long after our meeting,” wrote Mars, “we concluded that WWU’s concept of collaboration was so different from ours that it would be counterproductive to continue our brief courtship.” Mars added that this was “unfortunate,” and “represents a significant missed opportunity for WWU.” He told Allen that “For reasons that will soon become clear, that’s all [I] can say at the moment.” The e-mail was provided to The Nation by WWU. Walmart did not respond to a Wednesday evening request for comment.

Allen told The Nation that he sees Mars’ e-mail as “a significant missed opportunity for Walmart.” He added that “hopefully, there’ll be opportunities down the road to renew a dialogue. Because in the meantime, the problems in the supply chain are not going away, and we and other stakeholders will support workers who are fighting to make Walmart live up to its own standards.” He declined to speculate on what had motivated Walmart to cease meeting with his organization, or what could be meant by “reasons that will soon become clear…”

In the three months between Walmart’s meeting with the warehouse workers and its e-mail ending that “courtship,” more warehouse and retail workers went on strike, a WWU-backed class action lawsuit advanced in the courts, and WWU panned a new warehouse monitoring plan from Walmart. According to The Wall StreetJournal , that plan would expand the labor audits that Walmart uses for suppliers in China and Bangladesh to its US warehouses.

In early January interviews with The Nation, WWU leaders expressed concern that Walmart could be implementing a system like the one that failed to avert a deadly fire in a Bangladesh factory. Last week, warehouse workers and WWU officials expanded on those concerns in an open letter to Walmart’s CEO and Board, saying they were “deeply concerned about the intent and sincerity behind” the plan, and charging that “A public relations campaign by Walmart and a toothless monitoring system will not make the problems disappear.” Mars sent his e-mail to Allen the next day.

Faced with strikes and increased scrutiny over the labor conditions in its warehouses, Walmart could be trying to make changes that undermine the criticism, while still denying legitimacy to the critics. The same could be said of Walmart’s approach to its retail stores. In a keynote address Tuesday to the National Retail Federation, Walmart US President Bill Simon never mentioned OUR Walmart or the workers’ strikes, instead alluding to unnamed naysayers: “We’re all tired of retail jobs being put down, as if retail workers can’t judge for themselves what a good job is.” But Simon announced new Walmart initiatives in three areas: hiring veterans, sourcing products from the United States, and a plan to “bring more transparency into our scheduling system.” The first two touch on high-profile national issues, and drew national media attention. But the third appears aimed at a long-time complaint of OUR Walmart members: insufficient and inconsistent hours.

Simon’s speech provided few specifics about what the scheduling changes would entail. He said the company was “working on clarifying the opportunities that we offer,” and to “make sure that part-time associates have full visibility” regarding full-time job openings. In an e-mailed statement, Pico Rivera, California, OUR Walmart activist Venanzi Luna said Simon’s announcement made it “clear Wal-Mart is reacting to the calls for change from OUR Walmart,” but added, “We need these words to translate into real action, and we will continue to speak out to make sure that Wal-Mart is addressing this problem, not just making a publicity statement.”

WWU’s Allen called the announcement about retail workers’ scheduling “a huge victory” and “a sign that generally, the company is responding to workers who are standing up,” both in the warehouses and the stores. “I think there’s going to be a lot of push and pull before we see a resolution here,” added Allen. “But I feel like we’re clearly on the right track.”

For more on the politics of Walmart’s distribution empire, read Josh Eidelson’s report on an ongoing class action lawsuit implicating the retail giant.