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Union Victory at Virginia IKEA Plant: Resistance Grows Against Race-to-Bottom Wages

The successful union campaign at IKEA's first U.S. factory defies conventional wisdom that a competitive future requires a lower-wage, less unionized America.

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And when employees filed for a union election, Ikea responded like most American companies: It called in professional union busters. And it didn’t do it on the cheap. It brought in Jackson Lewis, perhaps the nation’s premier anti-union firm. “There’s no Danish word” for union busting, says Street, because companies can’t get away with it there. But when Street initially confronted an Ikea vice president about Jackson Lewis, he responded, “Don’t even think you’re going to tell me who we’re going to get legal advice from.” Street says local managers were “out of control.” Management organized anti-union meetings, and rumors started about the plant closing down if workers chose a union. The IAM filed National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charges against Ikea, charging illegal anti-union tactics, including firings of union supporters. Ikea announced that it had sent auditors to investigate conditions at the Danville plant and found it in compliance with Ikea’s code of conduct.

Stein points out that “McDonalds in Germany provides healthcare and social benefits, and German firms which negotiate with [German] unions in the auto industry, when they set up an automobile industry in Alabama, they’re union free ... Even the best socialized company, if they can get away without a union, they’ll do it … The union takes away your power to do what you think is best for the company.”

The willingness of many companies to take advantage of the anti-union repertoire of countries in which they operate can have direct deadly consequences. U.S.-based Coca-Cola has drawn international condemnation for alleged complicity in the assassinations of union leaders in Colombia.

Forcing Accountability

The standards workers have won in Europe didn’t stop Ikea from abusing workers in the United States. But it helped create an opening for workers to win a change.

While workers were organizing for a union in Danville, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) labor federation, of which IAM is an affiliate, was working to pin responsibility for Virginia anti-union tactics on Ikea headquarters in Europe. Ikea workers and supporters engaged in global solidarity actions, including thousands of phone calls and emails and an informational picket line in Australia. The workers’ struggle in Virginia for the benefits that are assumed in Sweden drew repeated Swedish media coverage, including a segment on the country’s top-rated news show.

Street says that pressure paid off in the months before the union vote, as Ikea corporate concluded that protecting their brand in Europe required getting Jackson Lewis to scale back its anti-union tactics in Virginia. Although Ikea never complied with the standards set forth in its corporate code of conduct or its agreements with a global union federation, Street says, “we were able to have Ikea essentially put handcuffs on Jackson Lewis.” As a result, the election became “a referendum on Swedwood” without the same degree of fear and confusion that can follow a full-force Jackson Lewis campaign.

The Swedish example also strengthened workers’ sense of what was possible in Virginia. In the month before the election, a leader of Sweden’s Ikea manufacturing union flew to Danville and met with workers to describe the wages, benefits and respect they had won. BWI also organized to send the 335 Danville workers messages of support from workers around the world, including hand-written letters and videos. The week before the election, five Danville workers passed out from excessive heat after being denied breaks and water. Days later, they won their union with 76 percent of the vote.

Stein says the Ikea example is instructive because Americans are more used to seeing themselves as providers, rather than the beneficiaries, of global solidarity. “It’s not just the rich American workers helping their benighted third-world brothers. It works all the way around … It’s solidarity. It’s similar.”

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