DANVILLE, Va. - After receiving 20,000 complaints from people angry about how it treats its workers here, IKEA has agreed to meet with the union trying to organize them, American Rights at Work reported today.
The meeting is something workers have been demanding for more than three years now.
Details have not been made public yet by either the Swedish furniture giant or the union, the woodworking division of the Machinists.
The company's decision to talk with union representatives also follows articles in the press, including the People's World, regarding racial discrimination, pay cuts, dangerous conditions and firings of pro-union workers at the plant.
"This is a huge opportunity," said Liz Cataneo, team leader at American Rights at Work. "But if IKEA thinks the public isn't paying attention, they're going to play hardball at the meeting and throughout the election process - which could mean more firings and more union busting."
Cataneo urged members of the public to call the IKEA store nearest them, ask for the store manager, "and tell the manager that you are rethinking shopping until this situation is resolved."
In an email message dated May 19, the company responded to three People's World articles by claiming that allegations of discrimination and union busting at the plant were false.
The company's U.S. public relations director, Mona Astra Liss, said in the message that audit teams IKEA had sent out found that "the one claimed case of discrimination at the plant had been resolved."
But Building and Wood Workers International, a federation of around 328 unions representing around 12 million members in 130 countries, said in a statement today that the company's claims about no discrimination at Danville are false.
"While IKEA claims its auditors found no evidence of discrimination," said the federation, "it is busy carrying out mediation hearings to settle cases of alleged racism and discrimination out of court."
In its statement today the federation confirmed the details of a meeting described in one of the People's World articles challenged by IKEA. The union's account:
"On April 28, a worker arrived for such a hearing. Present at the meeting was a mediator [from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission], a representative of IKEA, a lawyer from the law firm of Jackson Lewis [the union-busting firm], an older male African American worker who had been discharged and a representative from the union.
"It was made clear to the worker that there could be no settlement if the union representative was present. Faced with this ultimatum from the company, and after discussion with the union representative, it was decided the worker would go into the meeting alone."
"Conditioning the meeting on the denial of the right to representation strikes at the very core of civil, human and union rights," the federation declared in its statement today.
Bill Street, the director of the IAM's woodworking division, has been organizing workers at the plant for the last year and a half.
Although he is confident that most workers want the union, he worries about the pressure that the company will apply between now and the time of an election. "It's why we need everyone's support," he said.
Street noted that, in addition to compelling the company to agree to meet with the union, all the publicity has had other positive effects.
"They're thinking twice before they fire people even though still they are firing too many people," he said.
Street also noted that the publicity and the complaints have resulted in an official halt to mandatory forced overtime. "On May 6 they announced that they were eliminating forced overtime," he said.