DANVILLE, Va. - In a 221-69 vote, workers at the IKEA Swedwood plant here voted to have the Machinists union become their official representative.
The victory comes after more than two years of struggle to unionize by workers who have battled what they describe as low wages, forced overtime, high injury rates, discriminatory work practices, harassment of union organizers and discharge of union supporters.
"It's absolutely outrageous, it's wonderful," said the lead union organizer, William Street over the phone Wednesday night from the Holiday Inn Express here where workers were celebrating. Street is director of the woodworking division of the International Association of Machinists, the union that now represents the workers.
The election was conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. The election was necessary because IKEA had exercised its right, under the law, to insist on an election rather than abide by the results of card check drives in which clear majorities of the workforce had indicated their desire to unionize.
"The workers and their union are sending a message around the world," said an elated Street, "that American workers are not going to accept treatment as third world people with no rights. This is a clear message to transnational, multi-national, and foreign corporations that they cannot expect to get away with mistreating U.S. workers."
Street gave an example of the mistreatment he was talking about. He said that only last March, Maria Blair, a "petite woman" at the Danville plant had been forced to do continual 50 lb. lifts. When she tried to convince a supervisor that the work was causing her injury she was threatened with firing. She continued working until she collapsed and was rushed to the hospital with a herniated disc. While recuperating from surgery she was fired, Street said.
"This was a victory for so many of the single moms at the plant," said Tammy Cassels, herself a single mother and an IAM volunteer who came in from out of town to canvass in Danville right up until the election. "For these women their day starts as soon as their feet hit the floor in the morning and doesn't end until they go to sleep at night. At work these women, some of them barely 100 lbs. themselves, have to do repeated lifting of 50 lbs. of wood. I admire them. This is their victory."
Coreta Giles, a Danville worker who was among the celebrants last night, told the local press that she voted for the union "so we can have a voice, so we can be heard and so we can have another leg to stand on when we have to."
Giles said the heat inside the plant was a big factor in her decision to back the union. The Danville plant is not air-conditioned and is routinely 15 to 20 degrees hotter than outside, according to Street. "Yesterday it was 95 outside and 115 inside," he said. "Tomorrow it will be 100 degrees outside."
A big issue for almost everyone who backed the union, said Street, is the fact that IKEA pays its Swedish workforce $19 an hour with five weeks paid vacation. Fulltime workers at Danville get $8 an hour and get 12 vacation days a year, eight of which are determined by management.
Street said that as soon as the NLRB certifies the results of the election, which should be in less than 10 days, workers will call their first official union meeting and begin the bargaining process.
The union considers the victory particularly significant because the company, it says, spared no efforts to sway the outcome of the elections.
Workers, the union says, were forced to attend management-run anti-union propaganda sessions, were promised bonuses if the union were to be defeated and there were rumors of plant closure if the union were to win the election.
After the vote company spokesman Ken Brown said, "We accept the decision and will work with their union in a mutually cooperative and respectful manner."
"We'll see," said Street. "We would like to believe that management will honor the workers' decision and engage in a fair bargaining process."
Photo: Bill Street, the lead organizer for the union, happily spreads the good news about the big union win at IKEA. Photo courtesy of IAM.