Workers at the IKEA furniture plant in Danville, Virginia on December 17 ratified their first collective bargaining agreement that takes effect on January 1. The new contract marks a new stage in the three-year fight for worker dignity and respect at the plant, which is operated by Swedwood, a wholly owned subsidiary of the international retail furniture giant.
Workers at the Swedwood plant began organizing a union with the help of the IAM in 2008. They were tired of Swedwood’s encroachments on lives away from work, the lack of safety at the plant, discrimination against African-American workers, the company’s over reliance on temporary workers, and a petty yet burdensome disciplinary system that gave supervisors absolute authority and workers no recourse to challenge unwarranted disciplinary action.
They won a union representation election in July when 76 percent of the more than 300 workers voted to represented by IAM.
According to the IAM, the new contract addresses these issues, but the ability of the workers at the plant to see meaningful change will depend on the kind of on-the job organization they build.
Details of the contract are not available, but according to a report by BWI, an international organization of unions representing woodworking workers, the new contract limits the number of temporary workers that the company can hire and requires that they receive safety training before beginning work.
The contract also establishes a process for determining work rules that will be applied equally without discrimination. If the union and company cannot agree on work rules, a third-party arbitrator will make the final decision.
Under the old rules, supervisors did not have to give any justification for denying merit raises. They were even at liberty to ignore annual performance evaluations. This led to a lot of favoritism and discrimination on the job. The new contract is supposed to put an end to this practice.
The number of vacation days are tripled and the existing holidays are maintained.
The contract also establishes three union management committees. One is a joint committee on safety. Workers have complained about unsafe and unhealthy conditions at the plant. Back in December, the union began hearing complaints from workers about toxic and hot chemicals on the print line that were causing burns. The joint safety committee will be responsible investigating these kind of safety problems and recommending changes to make the plant safer.
Another joint committee will deal with training issues. For instance, the union and company agreed that when new technologies are introduced at the plant, the training committee will determine what skills are needed to implement the new technology and then provide training to workers who are already on the job, so that they can operate the new equipment or perform the new process.
The new agreement also revamps the disciplinary procedures. Under the old work rules, supervisors handed out penalty points for what they considered infractions of the rules. For example, last fall while the new contract was still being negotiated, supervisors demanded that workers work overtime on one Saturday, even though the company had previously announced that it was curtailing mandatory overtime. The supervisor told workers that they had to work or be given two penalty points. Termination is automatic after nine penalty points.
Penalty points have also been given to workers who suffered on-the-job injuries and to workers who supervisors thought were taking too many bathroom breaks, or who called in sick, or had to take children to the doctor.
Under the new contract, a grievance procedure has been established. The grievance procedure will give workers a chance to contest unwarranted and unfair disciplinary action. The new procedures will be based on due process and just cause.
Despite overwhelming support for the union, the company continued to take action against union supporters while negotiations were in progress. “Supervisors are threatening and intimidating union supporters for discipline and violating workers’ rights to be represented by a union steward,” said the leader of IAM’s wood working division William Street back in November.
Street said that he hoped that the contract will resolve these problems and lead to more cooperation between the company and the workers.
Nevertheless, if the company’s recent actions are indicative of how they will act in the future, a lot will depend on well workers are organized and how willing they are to fight to enforce the contract.