Who’s IKEA gonna call? Union busters!

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

DANVILLE, Va. - The manager of IKEA's Swedwood furniture factory here, Bert Lundgren, says the company bars the Machinists union from talking to workers at the facility, because "that's how the American system works." He says that, in accordance with what is permissible under U.S. labor law, he has "absolutely no dialogue" with the union and that all company "dialogue" is directly with the workers. His position is that there is no need for a union, "a third party," to get between him and his workers.

What he does not say is that the company has already brought in its own third party, Jackson Lewis, the "mother" of all union-busters.

IKEA hired the firm to tell it what to do almost as soon as the union began organizing here a year and a half ago. Jackson Lewis, in the business since 1958, is the company even other union-busting firms turn to when they want to learn the state of the art tricks of their trade.

"IKEA was quick to learn how it works in this country," said Bill Street, the lead organizer for the International Association of Machinists organizing drive at the plant here. "They took advantage of lax labor laws and they cut wages. Then they went out and hired these thousand-dollar-a-day lawyers to take away the right of their workers to form a union."

Street said that Jackson Lewis lawyers even forced him to leave a mediation session recently in which a worker had requested Street's services as his representative. The union had complained to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission when the company fired a worker described by one supervisor as "too old for the job." When the EEOC, company representatives and the worker, with Street as his representative, entered the mediation room, the Jackson Lewis lawyer pulled the company rep outside and told IKEA to insist that Street leave the meeting. Both the company and the EEOC reps went along with the demands of the Jackson Lewis lawyer and the worker ended up being unrepresented.

"It's what galls me the most," said Street. "These smart thousand-dollar-a-day lawyers deny a worker his basic human right to representation at a hearing."

Jackson Lewis, it turns out, does a lot more than that.

Among many other services they offer are "How to Stay Union Free" seminars that involves two or more day workshops for "bona fide management representatives."

At the seminars employers are told to go around, if not actually break, U.S. labor laws, said a union activist who snuck into one of these seminars.

Company reps at the meeting were told that it was entirely acceptable to fire any and all union organizers but that the official reason for firing had to be "job performance related."

American Rights at Work, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, issued an action alert May 12 urging the public to send protest letters about IKEA's union busting to Mikael Ohlsson, the company's CEO.

"Instead of respecting its workers' right to form a union like IKEA does in Sweden, " said Liz Cataneo, the group's president, "Its subsidiary in Virginia hired union busting consultants."

Jackson Lewis, the consultant firm they have hired, has been plying its trade in a variety of creative ways for years.

Back in 1996 the company taught Borders Bookstores how to use its counter-culture image to destroy union organizing efforts. They advised Borders managers to stress to workers how unions were "out of date," "divisive, "and "a threat to the New Age, Borders culture."

Another approach pushed by Jackson Lewis: Tell workers that unions are okay for other companies but "not for our family." Managers are urged to express "sadness" that some workers would want to bring in a union, "a third party," to get between members of the  "family." Again, the managers are warned not to let on to workers that the company has already brought in its own third party, Jackson Lewis.

In its determination to portray labor unions as the "outside" or "third party" Jackson Lewis, among its many tricks, has directed payroll managers to deduct the maximum dues amount from workers' checks during an organizing drive, and then reissue the deducted amount in a separate check. The smaller checks are given out with a note that reads, "This is what you can expect every month if the union gets in."

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  • Roger objects to the term "union busters," preferring instead, "labor relations consultants." He says they carry out an "honorable profession," "telling the other side of the story," as allowed by the National Labor Relations Act.
    Most practitioners of "honorable" professions, unlike union busters, do not do their work in secret, behind the backs of the people they are supposedly providing with "information."
    Workers at the mandatory "information" meetings are not told that the employer talking to them is dancing to a script written behind the scenes by the union buster.
    A union supporter at the plant being fired for an unproven allegation is not told that his or her termination is the result of the company following the suggestions of the union buster.
    Years ago when Karen Silkwood tried to organize workers at Kerr McGee, which made nuclear fuel rods, the "labor relations consultants" at the plant were doing more than "telling the other side" when they laid out for the company methods it could use to expose her to lethal radiation.
    Union reps, Roger says, try to hide the "ugly side" of union membership. Unlike union busters, union organizers don't really have anything to hide unless, of course, the company forces them to stay out of the facility and starts firing workers for even listening to them. Everyone, workers and bosses, know the union organizer by name. The union rep wants nothing more than to be able to to talk to everyone, including the bosses, out in the open at the workplace.
    Let's get real, Roger. Higher wages, health benefits, paid sick leave, paid vacation, pensions and a voice at work - the things union membership brings - are not really all that "ugly." Unions are not ashamed of these things nor are the workers who benefit from them.
    The idea, put forward by Roger, that most of what union busters do is "legal" would be laughable if it were not so absurd. The National Labor Relations Act, which he cites, stipulates that it is the policy of the United States government to encourage collective bargaining. The very existence of union busters, by definition then, violates the spirit, if not the letter of the law.
    The most important point: Whether or how to form a union - by signing pledge cards or through elections - should be left up to workers. Workers have no say in determining whether or how the company joins the Chamber of Commerce. Workers can't get rid of bosses who decide to join whatever outfit they decide to join. The company has no business determining whether or how a worker joins a union. If we decide we want representation it is our business, and our business alone. We don't need "labor relations consultants," bosses or anyone else telling us what we want.

    Posted by John Wojcik, PW Labor Editor, 05/17/2011 12:30pm (3 years ago)

  • I have read your series on IKEA with interest, but I am always amazed about the Union organization when they talk about “Union Busters”. In fact telling employees the other side of the story is an honorable profession at least according to the National Labor Relations Act. It is perfectly allowable.

    You call them “union busters” I call them labor attorneys or labor relations consultants. They are just the counter balance to the union side of the story.

    For each negative item written about what a labor attorney has done, there is a corresponding negative item done by a union organizer. That does not make either side correct.

    The fact is a union buster is there to make sure that the employee receives the complete story, the part of the story that the union organizer does not want to tell the employee, the ugly side of being a union member.

    This is typically done in a legal manner, so the employee is given the complete picture. This allows the employee to receive both sides of the issue and make a better informed decision.

    Of course I can see why you would not want an employee to be completely informed about the pitfalls of being a union member. That’s how you (the union) win elections.

    Posted by Roger, 05/16/2011 9:57am (3 years ago)

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