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.