Ikea Workers Vote to Unionize in Viriginia
Last week, workers at an Ikea-owned furniture plant in Danville, Va voted overwhelmingly to join the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). The unionization vote passed by a margin of 221-69, despite the best efforts of an anti-union consulting company.
The organizing drive, which was fought as much in the international media as on the factory floor, successfully highlighted the contradictions between Ikea’s gleaming global brand and its treatment of workers in a remote U.S. town.
Nathaniel Popper of the Los Angeles Times won the April Sidney Award for his story about the grim working conditions and rising tensions between workers and management at the plant. Workers complained of eliminated raises, the frenzied pace of work, and punishing amounts of mandatory overtime. Six African American employees had filed discrimination complaints with the EEOC.
A majority of workers had signed cards indicating their interest in joining a union and the company hired the notorious anti-union consulting company Jackson Lewis to derail the organizing drive, Popper reported.
Popper noted that, while the tensions at the Danville plant were still a sleeper story in the United States, they were front page news in Sweden, a heavily unionized country where Ikea is regarded as a symbol of humane Swedish values.
“It’s ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico,” Bill Street who was trying to organize Danville for the machinists told Popper.
Popper later explained in our Q&A Backstory that he was drawn to the story because of the study in contrasts. Ikea is a global brand that holds itself up as a good corporate citizen, yet it set up shop in the isolated community of Danville to pay lower wages to a non-union workforce.
In Sweden, workers earn $19 an hour and accrue 5 weeks of government-mandated paid vacation a year, while full-time Danville workers, who assemble similar bookshelves and tables, start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days per year, 8 of which must be taken at a time of the company’s choosing. When the story ran, a third of Danville’s workforce were temporary workers who earned even less and received no benefits.
In a follow-up piece in June, Popper reported that Ikea had ended the Danville plant’s heavy reliance on temporary workers under pressure from the pro-union advocacy group American Rights at Work.
Comedy Central’s The Daily Show ran with the Ikea-as-colonist meme. “Sweden is everything America used to be – dominant, arrogant and so much more beautiful – while America has become Sweden’s Mexico,” according to the segment’s tagline. I’d guess that half the Daily Show’s audience watched that segment from the relative comfort of an Ikea couch. Talk about bringing the message home.
I emailed Popper to ask how the IAM organizers won, in spite of the anti-union drive. He argued that the decisive factors were Ikea’s sensitivity to bad publicity coupled with complacency on the part of management at Swedwood, as the Ikea-owned Danville plant is known:
I got the sense that the public spotlight made Ikea nervous. They wanted to resolve the situation and were hesitant to do anything that could have caused more public embarrassment. They did not try to prolong the election battle – or do any number of other things that companies do when they want to keep unions out. That probably made it much easier for the union to get its case across to the employees. That said, the local Swedwood management also seemed to think that workers were not interested in unionizing (as Ken Brown said in [this] NPR piece). So perhaps they thought they didn’t need to do much.
Now that the union has been recognized, the next step will be for the IAM to represent the workers at the bargaining table and, hopefully, negotiate their first contract.