After conducting a fact finding inquiry, a panel of international trade union representatives said that they would return home and organize support for more than 300 IKEA workers in Richmond, British Columbia locked out since May.
The federation represents 400,000 union members in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.
“It was a real honor to meet so many great brothers and sisters facing this lockout together with dignity and respect,” said Erin Der Maar, of the International Transport Workers Federations on the workers’ Facebook page. “. . . we will be following up on this as soon as we get back to Europe.”
Members of the panel talked to workers on the picket line and to management inside the IKEA store.
They heard testimony from workers at a November 7 hearing. Company representatives were invited to attend and speak but declined.
At the hearing, Jim Sinclair, president of the British Columbia Federation of Labor, explained why it’s important that workers throughout the world take up the cause of the locked out IKEA workers, members of Teamsters Local 213.
At the start of negotiations, said Sinclair, IKEA demanded concessions that would have cut wages and benefits and implemented a two-tier wage system that would have affected new hires and workers with less than four years of service.
The company also wanted to cut benefits and make them harder to get for part-time employees.
IKEA demanded concessions as if it were losing money, but since the economy has turned around, the company has been doing well.
IKEA has also engaged in union busting activity and intimidation, said Sinclair. The company passed out anti-union disinformation from a Canadian anti-union group that works to decertify unions, called union members at home to urge them return to work, and tried to use strike breakers.
Sinclair said that if workers let IKEA impose concessions while it is making money and get away with its union busting, these actions will set a dangerous precedent and encourage other companies throughout the world to do the same.
The lockout began after Teamster members rejected IKEA’s concessionary contract proposal three times.
Before workers voted on May 9 for the third time, IKEA threatened to lock them out if they rejected the company’s final offer, but the workers rejected it anyway.
The next day IKEA locked them out.
IKEA offered to lift the lockout if the workers would return work under the terms of the rejected contract.
The workers said no again.
In August, IKEA dropped its demand for a two-tier wage system but made a new proposal tying wage increases to achieving productivity and sales goals unilaterally set by the company. Under the new proposal, it could in some instances take 20 years to reach the maximum wage rate.
The union had originally proposed a six-year period to reach the maximum wage.
During the November 7 testimony, workers described how things have changed at the Richmond IKEA store.
When the store originally opened in the 1990s, store management seemed to buy into the so-called IKEA value system that encourages respect for customers and workers who serve customers.
But now said Marc Caron, an IKEA values trainer and 21-year employee, “IKEA is more concerned about the bottom line.”
Caron gave an example about how work at IKEA had changed. Before the lockout, Caron and another worker were talking when they were approached by a supervisor. They asked the supervisor about a new scheduling policy that made it difficult for workers to balance their work and life outside of work.
“The supervisor responded that ‘it’s not about work life balance anymore here’,” said Caron. “‘The work schedule is going to stay the same. If you don’t like it, there’s the door’.”
Keith Austin, a 27-year IKEA worker, said that the problems at IKEA in Richmond began in 2003 when IKEA built another store too close to the original store.
“IKEA became problematic in the 2003 when it opened another store in Coquitlam,” said Austin. About 40 percent of the Richmond customers started shopping at the Coquitlam store.
Once the Richmond store starting losing customers, it had a harder time meeting the production goals set at IKEA headquarters.
That’s when IKEA in Richmond started drifting away from its original values.
Austin said that building the store so close to the Richmond was a big mistake. The rule of thumb is that stores operated by the same company should be at least 60 kilometers from each other. The store in Colquitlam was 23 kilometers away from Richmond.
“IKEA made a strategic mistake in locating the store in Colquitlam, now they want workers to pay for their mistake,” said Austin.
Austin said that if IKEA forces concessions this time, they’ll ask for more concessions in the future.
Tim Beaty, director of global strategies for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, told the panel that IKEA labor relations are deteriorating in other parts of the world.
He pointed to Turkey where IKEA has resisted recognizing the workers’ union.
Beaty said the UNI Global Union, an international confederation of unions in the retail and wholesale trades, had surveyed IKEA union members throughout the world.
The results of the survey show that union members in northern Europe were satisfied with their relationship with IKEA, but workers further away from the IKEA center were much less satisfied.
Beatty said that its time to put an end to the erosion of labor relations at IKEA and that it would take international action.
Lövkvist said that panel members would complete a report on their findings in about a month. In the meantime, the unions would begin publicizing the lockout back home and would seek a meeting with IKEA executives in Sweden.
Depending on the results of the meeting, the unions, said Lövkvist, may take further action including refusing to handle IKEA goods. Nothing is off the table said Lövkvist.
Richmond IKEA workers told the panel that they were willing to continue their fight. “We’ve gone too far to back down now,” said Caron. “I’ll stand on this picket line as long as it takes.”