Monday, August 29, 2011

Swedish Capitalist Learn U.S. Labor not so Cheap

I reported on a union organizing effort at the Ikea’s Swedwood Danville Plant in Virginia. I am delighted to follow-up that blog and report that on August 6th, by a 221-69 vote, workers voted to unionize with the Machinists Union (IAM) overcoming strenuous anti-union efforts by Ikea’s subsidiary.  As Tawanda Tarply, a worker at the plant, stated in an article at “We were fed up with wages, safety concerns, overall communication. We wanted to be treated with respect”.  Swedwood used a point system to penalize workers handing out points to a maximum of 9 (at which time workers were fired) for infractions including non-approved restroom breaks (1 pt.), as well as 1 point to a man who collapsed from heat exhaustion and was carried from the plant on a stretcher  IAM has said previously that the Danville plant is the most dangerous furniture-manufacturing factory in the U.S., with 1,536 days lost from work due to injury since 2007.  Check out their excellent video on Swedwood HERE. As you might expect, management is dragging their feet in agreeing to reach the bargaining table having put off till September a first meeting with the union and agreeing to only 2 days of available meeting time.

The Swedwood plant may be just the tip of the iceberg. Another Ikea affiliated subsidiary, the nearby EBI LLC plant, has been resisting a unionization attempt. Apparently the company has been successful as  workers on Monday August 9, 2011 voted against representation by the United Steelworkers in an NLRB-supervised election by a vote of 281 (no) to 118 (yes).  This defeat re-emphasizes how difficult it is to organize in “Right-to-work” states (see map taken from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation website).

The U.S. affiliated plants are not the only ones complaining that Ikea is failing to live up to its own Code of Conduct.  This summer’s meeting of the Congress of European retail unions saw a statement from the group criticizing Ikea’s failures. Workers in Spain, Turkey, and the U.S. have all been protesting working conditions at Ikea plants.  But, perhaps we should not be too hard on Ikea, after all their failure is in part due to high expectations they themselves have set. The Ikea Code of Conduct was, after all, developed for its suppliers. IKEA was an early and high profile leader in openly addressing issues of social and environmental responsibility in the supply chain. IKEA's motto is "low prices, but not at any price."

A footnote about the organization that brings us the Right-to-work map above. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation is a leading proponent of right to work laws supporting what they call “The Right to Work” principle--which asserts idea that every American should be able to work for a living without being compelled to belong to a union.  Critics from organized labor have argued since the late 1970s that while the National Right to Work Committee purports to engage in grass-roots lobbying on behalf of the "everyday worker", the National Right to Work Committee was formed by a group of southern businessmen with the express purpose of fighting unions, and that they "added a few workers for the purpose of public relations" (see Wikipedia

I hope that the victory at Swedwood is symbolic of rising resistance of workers to the increasingly exploitative working conditions faced by all Americans today.


  1. Comment sent to us by Marnie Dobson:

    I would add this comment about the National Right to Work committee’s problematic anti-union appeal, that we should also be calling into question the obfuscating and frankly ridiculous slogan “right to work.” Even in the “non-right-to-work” states such as California, union membership is still voluntary and not being a member of a union does not prevent one from working. In fact, management rights over hiring are fastidiously protected by big business and are never negotiable during collective bargaining. Unions can’t force management to only hire union members. I can think of only a few examples, such as in the music and movie industries, where union membership carries a certain amount of weight and carries over from work project to work project and where union membership is a prerequisite for working on a “union project.” But even then producers can still run a non-union show (and many more are doing this going overseas to Eastern Europe, Canada etc.). SAG and AFM union members are discouraged from doing non-union shows in the US as this basically undercuts their own (and others) wages, undermining the agreed upon union scale. These unions are all renegotiating lower and lower union scales, incidentally, to try and keep “low budget” movies and music projects in the United States.

    In more standard and unionized workplaces, however, all workers enjoying the benefits of a collectively bargained contract (health and safety provisions, wage increases, workload protections, grievance processes, benefits etc.) pay “agency fees,” but not all have to be union members in order to work in that workplace! Union membership provides one a voice in the democratic structure of the union and in supporting the representative power of a union during collective bargaining. Thus the “Right to Work” campaign is spreading a vapid misconception about “forced unionism.”

  2. I agree completely with the excellent posts above. The Taft-Hartley Act outlawed the "closed shop" in the United States in 1947. Thus, an employer may not lawfully agree with a union to hire only union members. Employers may, on the other hand, agree to require employees to join the union (union shop) or pay the equivalent of union dues (agency shop, agency fee) to it after a set period of time.
    Since union shop contracts don't exist in the public sector, they would only cover a fraction of the 7.2% of private sector workers who are union members in the U.S. Thus, very few U.S. workers are covered by such contracts.
    The proponents of "right to know" also fail to point out the benefits of living in countries with high unionization rates, such as the Scandinavian countries -- a high standard of living, greater rights at work, and greater social mobility and and a longer life expectancy than in the U.S.