Leaders of the Swedish firm IKEA thought coming to the U.S. South would be a perfect marriage.
They could take advantage of a cheap, docile labor force and a political establishment willing to hand out millions of dollars in incentives while working with local business and media leaders to discourage any potential unionization effort. At the same time, the company could enjoy an international image as a progressive Swedish firm with a code of conduct recognizing workers’ rights to join a union.
The marriage worked for a while. The company won a $12 million incentives package from local and state governments to open a plant in Danville. Operating through its subsidiary Swedwood, it started its workforce there at $8 an hour, rather than the minimum $19 an hour paid in Sweden. Workers got 12 days vacation—eight days of them at the company’s choosing—rather than the five weeks promised Swedish workers.
A third of the workforce was temporary. Packing department workers saw their pay drop from $9.75 an hour to $8 an hour. That was in 2010, the same year IKEA reported a 6 percent hike in profits. Workers were subjected to unannounced-but-mandatory weekend shifts and stretch-out-like production requirements on the assembly line. The company hired a union-busting law firm to make sure unions stayed out.
Then the honeymoon ended.
By July 2011, workers in Danville had had enough. By a vote of 221-69, they won a union election and joined the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). Intimidation from supervisors continued even after the election, but the workers held their ground and the union put an international spotlight on IKEA and the hypocrisy of its code of conduct in view of its treatment of workers in Virginia.
Now the union fever has spread to other IKEA operations in the South and beyond. Inspired by the Danville vote, IAM went on to organize workers in Perryville, Md., Savannah, Ga., and Westhampton, N.J., winning elections in all three places, and is now campaigning in two other distribution centers.
The workers at IKEA’s warehouse/distribution center in Savannah are enjoying a new contract this year that gives them a 17 percent pay raise over the next three years plus keeps a lid on the costs of their health insurance.
Workers in Savannah also secured a Joint Safety Agreement and a Joint Partnership Agreement that help promote a safe working environment, according to IMAIL, the Machinists News Network.
An IAM member told one of this reporter’s key labor watchers that IKEA workers in Maryland accepted transfers to Savannah and brought union cards with them. The workers in Savannah immediately caught the fever.
This is the kind of story the mainstream media ignores. It has widespread implications for the labor movement in the South. Look at the Nissan plant in Canton, Miss., for example. Here you have an international firm whose workers are unionized in other countries. Yet the company fights union efforts in Mississippi and Tennessee.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn may need to have a conversation with IKEA leaders.