Workers at the Swedwood furniture plant in Danville, Virginia yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favor of union representation. Of the 290 workers who voted in the representation election, 221, or 76 percent, voted for the International Association of Machinists (IAM). Swedwood is a wholly owned subsidiary of IKEA, the multinational retail furniture chain, and the Swedwood factory in Danville makes furniture for IKEA stores in the US.
The union victory was a long time in the making, and the Swedwood workers received support from all over the world. Swedwood workers approached the IAM in 2009 and asked for its help in organizing a union. The workers’ main complaints were that pay was low, working conditions were unsafe, overtime was mandatory with little or no advanced warning, favoritism was rampant, and management discriminated against African-American workers.
One of IKEA’s guiding principles, known as the IWAY, is that IKEA workers will have the right to choose union representation without company interference. But that proved not to be the case in Danville.
When it looked like union backers at the plant had enough support to petition the National Labor Relations Board for a representation election, Swedwood hired a union avoidance law firm, Jackson Lewis.
When the IAM filed a representation election petition in June, the company filed a request to expand the potential bargaining unit to include 30 Team Captains, who for all practical purposes are supervisors with close ties to the company. Not wanting to delay the election, the IAM agreed to allow Team Captains to vote.
The company also held worker meetings at which they explained why Swedwood workers shouldn’t vote for union representation. In the meantime, rumors began to spread that the plant would close and move somewhere else if workers voted for the union and that workers would receive a bonus if they voted against the union.
“Despite the ‘persuasive’ tactics and intervention strategies that the Swedwood management installed throughout the entire union election process, and to be frank, prior to that, the workers at Swedwood have emphatically said, yes to the union,” said Ambet Yuson, General Secretary of the Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), a worldwide confederation of building and woodworking unions including the IAM that helped build international support for the Swedwood workers.
The IAM also received help from the Swedish Forest and Woodworkers Union (GS), which represents IKEA workers in Sweden. GS helped build a public relations campaign that highlighted the difference between how IKEA treats its US workers and how the company treats its unionized Swedish workers.
The next step for Swedwood workers will be to negotiate a contract. The company says that it will work with the union in a “mutually cooperative and respectful manner.” Bill Street, who heads IAM’s woodworking division, is hopeful that the company will bargain in good faith but remains wary.
“We would like to believe that the Swedwood management will honor the workers’ decision and engage in a fair bargaining process which will result in a binding agreement that will adequately address all issues and concerns of the workers,” Street said.