Originally published in the Industrial Worker , the official newspaper of the IWW/One Big Union.
IKEA may be known in Sweden for the decent pay it gives its employees, but workers at the furniture company’s first factory in the United States found out that IKEA’s progressive image is only a veneer on self-assembled exploitation. On July 24th, workers at the Danville, Virginia factory overwhelmingly voted for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) to be their union. IAM and IKEA originally held negotiations, but talks fell apart in the months leading up to the election.
Attracted by Virginia’s anti-union right-to-work laws, the furniture company was brought in at a cost of $12 million to the taxpayers. Paying its workers less than their Swedish counterparts, Swedwood – the IKEA subsidiary that runs the Danville factory – cut starting pay and halted its scheduled pay raises. It also hired the union-busting firm of Jackson Lewis to terrorize its workers.
Swedwood fired many of its employees and replaced them with temporary workers that received no benefits and less money. However, under pressure from labor activists, Swedwood was forced to cut down on its use of temp workers in May. IKEA also hired an auditing firm to speak with the workers about their conditions, but many were afraid to tell the auditors their true feelings out of fear of losing their jobs.
The auditors found out that management was forcing the employees to work overtime. Many workers complained that it was common for management to alert them on Friday that they must work a weekend shift or be punished.
“It’s the most strict place I have ever worked,” said former employee Janis Wilborne.
African-American workers pointed out the racial discrimination at the factory, and six of them filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. These workers were assigned to the least-desirable shift of 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and sent to work in the lowest-paying departments.
“If we put in for a better job, we wouldn’t get it—it would always go to a white person,” said former employee Jackie Maubin.
The exploitation in Danville became so extreme that the International Trade Union Confederation issued a statement saying that it would dedicate its resources to ensure that IKEA treated its American workers with dignity.
The Richmond IWW also sent a letter of solidarity to the Danville workers upon hearing about their struggle:
“The State of Virginia has a long history of attracting companies that count on weak labor laws, which without a union can leave workers vulnerable to exploitation. This is why, more than ever, it is important to encourage workers in all industries to unite in class struggle. With an organized working class we can build a labor movement that successfully demands dignity and respect, not only at our respective workplaces, but also in our communities.
“Every time we organize and form a union, the power of the working class is magnified… United, we can realize not only increased wages, better and safer working conditions, health care, and paid vacations, but also, quality union jobs, better schools, social services, and the enforcement of civil rights, for all workers.”
The Richmond IWW went on to encourage the workers to support the Wood Workers Division of IAM, as well as to pay their dues in order to keep the union functioning financially (something that “right-to-work” laws aim to stop).
“As the labor movement grows, so will our strength, and ability to demand the eventual abolition of the class and wage system, effectively removing the means of production from the clutches of the bosses, and placing those means into the hands of the workers, where it belongs,” concluded the Wobbly statement.
It was through working-class solidarity, our most powerful weapon, that this election was won.
“This struggle was global, with support and assistance from every continent by more than 120,000 workers, various social partners, and many other global union federations,” said Bill Street, union organizer and director of the Wood Works Department of IAM.
Once certified as the official representative of the IKEA/Swedwood workers in Danville, Virginia, the union hopes to buff out these nasty issues.
“So we can have a voice,” said worker Coretta Giles, explaining why she supports the union. “So we can all be heard and have another leg we can stand on when we need to. I just thank Jesus.”
IAM won by the impressive margin of 221 (76%) to 69 (24%), which seems like divine intervention. But it may just take a real miracle for justice to be served at Swedwood.
On August 1st, two workers were injured and needed to leave for treatment. Instead of giving them time off to recover, the workers were put back on the production line while they were still bleeding. At the end of July, a supervisor wanted to distribute Gatorade to the workers, but she was disallowed to do so by management despite the sweltering heat. Management began harassing the workers, saying they should all be fired and insisting that the shop would close due to their support for the union. A Human Resources representative went so far as to say that the workers lied to her about how they would vote, acknowledging that the company broke the law and questioned workers before the election. Other bosses have tried to break the workers spirit by insisting that Swedwood would never bargain with IAM, which is a violation of the NLRA. Company radio was also used to single out union supporters by name.
This situation shows that solidarity and bravery on the part of the working class and its allies can make gains in the struggle for justice. It also shows the demeaning, uncompromising stance the capitalist class takes towards the workers, and that the abolition of capitalism is the only hope for a better world. An injury to one will still be an injury to all until that day comes, so we must, and will, continue to support the Danville workers and IAM in their battle for workers rights.