By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Workers at the Ikea-owned Swedwood plant in Danville, Va., are still struggling for their rights against union-hostile supervisors despite workers’ 221-69 vote last July to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).
"Supervisors are targeting union supporters for discipline, violating workers' rights to be represented by stewards, threatening and intimidating pro union workers, and making numerous unilateral changes which by the law must be bargained," writes IAM official William V. Street Jr. in the latest issue of the London-based International Union Rights magazine.
The July vote was heralded as a major and rare victory for labor organizers in the U.S. South, a region whose business and political leaders have fought against labor rights since before the Civil War. The vote came after workers complained of stretch-out-like conditions on the assembly line that evoked images of 1930s textile companies, mandatory and unpaid overtime, eliminated raises, and racial prejudice. "In many ways, work conditions more akin to Dickens than Keynes," writes Street, director of IAM's Woodworkers' Department.
In addition, workers in Danville were paid considerably less than Ikea workers in Sweden, whose minimum wage is $19 an hour with five weeks of paid vacation. Ikea workers in Danville start at $8 an hour and get 12 vacation days. In the fall of 2010, packing department workers saw their wages drop from $9.75 an hour to $8 an hour. This came despite a 6 percent-plus hike in company profits in 2010 and a $12 million incentives package from local and state governments to get Ikea to locate in Danville. The median wage in Danville is more than $15 an hour.
Ikea calls itself a Swedish company but "is actually chartered in The Netherlands while controlled by a family trust in Luxemburg," Street writes. It was founded in 1947 by former Nazi sympathizer Ingvar Kamprad, one of the world's richest men whose personal wealth is estimated to be anywhere from $6 billion to many times that much.
When an organizing effort started in Danville, the company hired the union-busting Jackson Lewis law firm to help keep the union out.
All of this proved an embarrassment to a company that had touted its code of conduct recognizing workers' rights to join a union.
It also inspired an international effort to support the Danville workers. IAM ran a sophisticated campaign that put the spotlight on Ikea back in Sweden, prompting extensive coverage in the Swedish media and producing countless phone calls and emails and picket lines as far away as Australia.
"The capacity of the IAM and the need to educate both EU (European Union) affiliates and US citizens as to the backward nature of US labour law all were part of the decision making process," Street writes. "In the US, this discussion was characterized as the US becoming Sweden's Mexico, meaning a place for global business to exploit lax laws in order to exploit both workers and the environment."
Meanwhile, however, the battle goes on at the Danville plant. "The media has left, the story is over," Street laments.
However, IAM is fighting back, and so is the international labor community, which sees the Danville situation as part of a bigger picture of neo-liberal economic policies being pushed globally by the United States and organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These policies are hostile to unions as they push to increase corporate profits and work to inhibit government oversight. "Swedish union leaders are planning to visit Danville to see the fight for social justice first hand," Street says, adding that university-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the U.S. are also planning boycotts if workers' rights continue to be abused in Danville.
Ikea is a classic example of a modern-day "hollow" corporation that attempts to evade labor and environmental standards through the use of wholly owned subsidiaries like Swedwood and supplier companies, Street says.
A "hollow" company works something like this: It publicly pressures its subsidiaries and suppliers to be good corporate citizens and meet acceptable standards, but when they do, it proceeds to squeeze those same operations to lower their costs to the very minimum, ultimately forcing wages down and hurting working conditions.
It's the same kind of hypocrisy Walmart has engaged in for years. Once again, the South is in the middle of a battle that stretches around the globe.
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.