IKEA: Union-busting is “how American system works”

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This is the second article in a series about the ongoing struggle by IKEA workers in Danville, Va., to form a union. See first article and third article in the series.

DANVILLE, Va. - IKEA is known round the world for being a fabulous employer but its first U.S. plant is a modern sweatshop with poverty wages, forced overtime and mandatory "educational meetings" for anyone who hints any interest in joining a union.

A majority of the 335 workers at IKEA's Swedwood factory here have signed cards designating the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers as their representative.

The company has hired the union-busting law firm Jackson Lewis to help it "convince" its $8-an-hour employees that they don't want a union.

Workers at Swedwood plants in Sweden produce the same bookcases and tables turned out here, but at a starting salary of $19 an hour.

The company's Danville workers are not only underpaid but also afraid to talk to the union, the press or anyone else.

Kylette Duncan, one of the first to get a job at the plant when it opened three years ago, quit after six months to take an even lower paid retail job. "I need money as bad as anybody, but I also need a life," said the 52-year-old Duncan. She said while working at IKEA's Swedwood plant she had to cancel medical appointments for her seriously ill husband because of forced overtime.

IKEA looks on the U.S. and Danville as a low-wage haven, said Bill Street, director of the IAM's woodworking division and point man for the union's organizing drive at the plant.

For most of the 20th century this town of 45,000 relied on textile and tobacco for jobs.

Later, the empty warehouses and dilapidated mills became an eyesore, and people celebrated when IKEA arrived. No one thought that what the town was importing from Sweden would turn out to be a sweatshop.

Street said he recently flew to Europe to talk with company officials and thought things had gone well. A few weeks later, he said it is clear the company is not applying the necessary pressure on its U.S. managers to correct the problems.

"In February they fired Willie, a 60 year-old Vietnam vet, who supervisors said was too old to work even when he was hired," Street said. "Two weeks ago we had the mediation session that resulted from our having filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission."

"The company came in with their thousand-dollar-a-day union-busting lawyer and when they saw Willie had picked me as his representative they refused to talk - 'not with the union in the room,' as they put it."

"What kind of democracy" said Street, "allows a company to take away a human being's basic right to representation? The EEOC said there was nothing it could do. Willie faced the company alone. He didn't get his job back or his back pay and he wasn't allowed to talk to me or anyone else about what he did get."

Street said, "That Vietnam vet who they said was too old always jumped in to do the hardest jobs."

When the company ordered two older African American women to remove an industrial pile of sawdust in 98 degree heat, he recalled, it was Willie who stepped in and did much of the work for them.

Street walks all over Danville, knocking on the doors of those who signed the union pledge cards. None of those workers, he said, is willing yet to go public with their support for the union.

He met a man who told him that he had finished his shift on Friday when the supervisor said, "I'll see you tomorrow."

"I'm off this weekend," said the worker.

"I'll see you tomorrow," said the supervisor.

"That was it," said Street. "He had to work or be fired."

He says he is taking a wait-and-see approach to whether the company lives up to a promise it made on May 6 to do something about the forced overtime.

The factory manager, Bert Lundgren, is from Sweden.

He doesn't like to give interviews, as a rule, but a Swedish journalist was able to get through to him by phone recently.

"There are rules and regulations and we follow the rules and regulations that are in place," said Lundgren.

When asked why he bars the union from the facility and why he refuses any dialogue with the union - something that is unheard of in Sweden - he said, "Here we dialogue only with the workers directly. I have absolutely no dialogue with the union. That's how the American system works."

Photo: IKEA Swedwood employees prepare pieces of furniture for packing at the factory in Danville, Va., May 20, 2008. (Steve Sheppard/AP)

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  • glad the union is coming aboard, i mean how fair is it that you bust your hump for freaking $8.50 while the man/women next to you is making top pay. Its not my fault the stupid ass CEO's where embessling money, pay me what I am owed. Us workers made 10 million dollars for the company in one month and they can't so much slide a buck or two my way..Come on union bring the rain baby we need it bad in Danville, VA. Also everyone in the plant is suppose to get raises in Aug, well word is thats not gonna happen either because of low budget but yet they can buy cooling systems that dont even work or spend useless time and money on enginering ways to make "more profit" screw that 10 mill a month, hmm need I say more...

    Posted by unknown, 07/20/2011 2:15am (3 years ago)

  • Ikea should be using their clout to bring Swedish Social Values to the USA not disavowing their heritage.

    Posted by Ian Cunningham, 05/31/2011 12:00am (4 years ago)

  • 19$/h? Never heard about such an amount-not in Germany!! As a worker you do not get so much.

    Posted by Paly, 05/25/2011 8:27am (4 years ago)

  • Shame on the U.S. government for faciliating the exploitation of American workers. And shame on IKEA and the Swedish government for turning a blind eye and letting it happen.

    Workers and the labor movement are demonized in this country and something needs to be done about it before ALL of our rights are stripped away.

    Posted by Naomi McMillen, 05/23/2011 3:51pm (4 years ago)

  • So the Swedes come here to they can use the "American System" to F - - - American workers?!
    Looks like no more "Walton's Mountain" livin' in Virginia, compliment to the Swedish company and the sniveling greedy American decision makers who allow it to happen. The worker always get the short end of the stick. No more Ikea for me! I have already put a moratorium on goods from China.

    Posted by Kathie Bieschke, 05/17/2011 8:03pm (4 years ago)

  • Sadly, Lundgren DOES understand how the American system works.

    Posted by John Whiskey, 05/12/2011 10:24pm (4 years ago)

  • This is capitalism today—a race to the bottom. The Swedish unions need to take hold of this—before all their jobs are outsourced to the low-wage haven this side of the Atlantic. Has the Machinists' Union contacted their Swedish sisters and brothers? It should!
    Another note: I was thinking of buying some IKEA furniture, but no way until this crap stops. Maybe the union should start organizing a boycott too—I'll help!

    Posted by Hank Millstein, 05/12/2011 1:47pm (4 years ago)

  • This shit has to stop. You scared assed IKEA workers need to stand up and say enough is enough!!! tHIS IS NOT ADDRESSED TO THE DANVILLE WORKERS. I PRAISE THEM FOR TAKING A STAND.Union built this country and your turning your backs on them. THERE HERE TO HELP YOU!!! AND MAKE SURE YOU ARE NOT BEING ABUSED BY THESE POOR EXCUSES FOR A COMPANIES. IKEA IS TERRIBLE!!! YOU WILL NEVER GET RESULTS IF YOU ACT LIKE SPINELESS OVERWORKED COTTON PICKERS. THEY FEED OFF OF YOUR FEAR. YOU HAVE AN ARMY TO TO BACK YOU UP. THE 325 COWORKERS YOU WORK WITH. IKEA IS A DUMP!!! I KNOW, I WORK AT A DC IN THE US. THEY WILL LIE TO YOUR FACE AND TRY TO GET YOU FIRED IF YOU DONT WORK THE SCHEDULED HOURS THEY CALL RED MONTH. WHICH IS ANOTHER NAME FOR MANDATORY OVERTIME. STAND UP IKEA WORKERS, ITS TIME!!! I GET SICK JUST SAYING I WORK THERE.

    Posted by JB, 05/11/2011 1:00pm (4 years ago)

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