July 27 (Bloomberg) -- Workers at Ikea’s U.S. furniture factory voted to form a union, a victory for the labor movement seeking to rebound from record-low membership at private companies.
Employees at the plant in Danville, Virginia, voted 221-69 today to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the National Labor Relations Board said. The factory, operated by a subsidiary called Swedwood, makes low-cost bookcases and coffee tables for sale in Ikea’s 37 blue and yellow U.S. big-box stores.
“We fully support the right of our co-workers to make this decision,” said Ingrid Steen, a Swedwood spokeswoman. “We accept their decision and will work with their union in a mutually cooperative and respectful manner.”
Ikea Group Corp. is the world’s second-largest retailer behind Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has turned back union efforts by employees. Ikea, based in Odakra, Sweden, is the world’s largest home-furnishing retailer.
The Machinists union has targeted the plant since it opened in 2008 with $12 million in incentives offered by state and local governments.
“The primary issue that has driven this campaign from the beginning has been a plantation-like attitude by management,” said Bill Street, director of the woodworking department for the union who led the organizing campaign. “Mandatory overtime in New York City may not be a huge deal, but in a rural, family oriented small community with strong religious values, this treatment is unacceptable.”
Workers complained about low wages, discrimination, long working hours, eliminated raises, frenzied pace and mandatory overtime. Workers would find out on a Friday evening that they’d have to work a weekend shift, and there would be disciplinary action for workers who didn’t show up, Street said.
In addition, six black former employees filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming they have faced racial discrimination at the factory.
Steen declined to comment on the union’s statements.
Complicating the working conditions in Danville is a disparity between work rules in the U.S. and in Sweden. Fulltime workers in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days, including 8 days set by the company. Europeans collect a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and the government mandates five weeks of paid vacation.
The company also has a code of conduct called IWAY that guarantees workers the right to organize and stipulates that all overtime be voluntary.
“For workers in Danville, the knowledge that the company is capable of meeting a different business model enabled them to seek an alternative,” Street said.
The Danville union drive was followed by the media in Sweden, where many company workers are union members. The largest daily newspaper in Stockholm wrote that the company was behaving in an “un-Swedish way.”
In Danville, the company hired Jackson Lewis LLP, a law firm that helps businesses block unions, to fight the organizing effort. The company’s anti-union tactics were limited by not wanting to hurt their corporate reputation as being progressive, Street said.
With unions representing a record low 6.9 percent of workers at U.S. companies, and many organizing campaigns failing, the Ikea vote is a victory for the labor, he said.
“Virginia has the third lowest union density in any state in the nation,” he said. “If we can win in Virginia, we can win elsewhere.”
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