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…”