IKEA in Virginia: A modern sweatshop

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

DANVILLE, Va. – “Your daughter gets sick. You take her to the hospital and turn in a doctor’s note when you get back – one demerit. Death in the family, you stay home – one demerit. Going to the restroom when not on break – one demerit.

“With the fifth demerit, you get a written warning. Ninth: Go home and don’t come back.’ You’re out of a job.”

That is how a worker, on condition of anonymity, described how she and her fellow employees earn demerits at a furniture plant here operated by Swedwood, a subsidiary of international furniture giant IKEA.

Employees who signed union pledge cards cite a co-worker who had problems with his bladder. Repeatedly, he asked if he could go to the restroom, but was told no. He ended up urinating on himself. His wife came to the factory with a change of clothes. He changed in the men’s room and was given a demerit for leaving his work station. After two weeks, he went to the restroom without permission to avoid another “accident.” He was fired.

The International Trade Union Confederation last week condemned IKEA for its refusal to allow representatives from the International Association of Machinists, which represents woodworkers, into the plant to talk to workers.

“Clearly all is not well at this factory, and IKEA is taking advantage of the lax protections afforded U.S. workers,” said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

Bill Street, director of the IAM’s woodworking division, has been organizing workers at the plant for the last year and a half.  Not allowed into the facility, he has to call off-site meetings at local restaurants and wonders how many workers will be brave enough to show.

Recently they met at a steak house. Six men and four women, all African Americans, showed up.

“If they find out that we came here we’ll be fired,” they told Street. They are afraid of their Swedish employers, Swedwood and IKEA, companies that have a reputation around the world for being good employers and solid corporate citizens.

Danville is past its full employment days when thousands of its residents worked in a now-shuttered textile mill and thousands of others worked in a now-vanished tobacco industry.

Cheap labor in a town on the skids attracted IKEA when it chose, three years ago, to make its “Expedit” bookcases, “Pax” wardrobes and “Lack” side tables here. A town hungry for jobs, however, is now home to hundreds of fearful and angry workers.

“If the company let me in, they’d be unionized in a week,” said Street.

For many months he was not allowed to come closer than a few hundred yards from the factory gate, where he stood and passed out flyers. Then Swedwood bought that spot and the closest he can get now is a highway ramp where cars pass at 50 miles an hour.

Meetings at restaurants and home visits are the only way he gets to talk to workers. Here is some of what he heard at the steak house:

“They can force us to do anything they want. If you complain, they say, ‘Don’t bother coming back.'”

“They fire people for no reason.”

“Blacks are treated worse than whites when it comes to promotions and transfers. Whites get the best shifts.”

Street said, “It is clear that African American workers are fired for what is routinely accepted from white workers. No action was taken against a white worker who, unloading a barrage of ‘f’ bombs, cursed heavily at a Black worker while a Black worker was fired for using the word “damn.” In 98 degree heat three African American women over 45 were made to shovel a huge industrial sawdust pile.”

“And it’s not just African Americans who suffer the discrimination. A gay worker reports that she has a line supervisor who passed around a joke about a gay spider ending up dead. In some places that’s in bad taste but in Danville a joke like that is dangerous,” said Street.

Street says that before the organizing drive began he had hoped things would go well. “After all this is IKEA, run by Swedes, nice company, nice people.” His vision didn’t pan out, he said. “It’s back to the same old story of war instead of dialogue.”

The union says that if IKEA were fair it would allow the union into the plant. The company, the union believes, is taking advantage of laws that allow it to insist on an expensive election and, in the meantime, harass and fire union supporters.

“In the beginning they probably didn’t even intend to work this way,” Street said. “But you come from Europe to over here where labor laws are so weak, where you have a Republican governor and where you can get away with cutting pay so you do it. And they did it.”

Street notes that high turnover and the company’s long-time policy of hiring many temporary workers also make it tough to organize the 350 workers at the plant, “even though the union has the solid backing of the 150 long-time, full-time employees.”

“We are getting stronger, though, and I expect that in a few months we will call for and win an election,” he said.

Still, he worries about pressure that the company can put on workers. “The six weeks between when an election date is set and when it actually takes place gives the company a lot of time to scare the shit out of the workers,” Street said.

He notes that whatever happens, progress is being made. “The place is a safer place to work in already,” he said. “There are less injuries even though less is still too many. Today, management thinks twice before they fire people even though they are still firing too many. And, literally as of today, May 6, they say they are eliminating mandatory forced overtime.”

Photo: kimubert CC 2.0




John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.