Workers in Danville Organize IKEA Plant
The labor movement for blue collar manufacturing workers had a big win this past week in Danville, Virginia. Danville was selected as a site for a plant by Swedish retailer IKEA in 2006. Everyone seemed to think the deal would be mutually beneficial for all parties. Danville had a reputation of being a hard-working blue collar town, and IKEA had a reputation of corporate social responsibility. However, it did not take long for cracks to appear.
Instead of well-paying jobs with benefits, workers found low starting wages around $8 an hour and nearly one third of the jobs filled by temporary workers receiving no benefits. Additionally, workers faced mandatory overtime, sometimes with little or no warning. Some workers even complained of racial discrimination and unsafe working conditions. It seemed the honeymoon was over before it had even started. However, workers at the plant fought back and began to organize. In a final vote on July 27, plant workers voted to join the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers by a 221-69.
A popular stereotype perpetuated by extreme-right foes of organized labor is that business opposes labor. The truth is usually much more nuanced, with labor and management working together and collaborating. In this case, business overtly supported labor. A spokesperson for the subsidiary that operates the plant said in a statement, “We fully support the right of our co-workers to make this decision; we accept their decision and will work with their union in a mutually cooperative and respectful manner.”
In a tough economic climate, many workers are often afraid and unwilling to raise such objections. However, the overwhelming majority of employees at the Danville plant have chosen to challenge IKEA to meet its corporate image. IKEA has made it their policy to allow workers to freely organize and states that all overtime is voluntary. The organizing drive was met with some resistance from IKEA, but labor groups will be diligent in ensuring IKEA holds to their values.
Unions have unfortunately been declining in the US. Less than 7% of our workforce is organized. Virginia has even lower union representation, and ranks third lowest of the states in union density. In 2011, conservative governors and legislators in states like Wisconsin have effectively dismantled public sector unions despite significant opposition.
While only representing one institution of approximately 300 workers, the Danville plant’s decision to organize is a step in the direction for labor choice. Hopefully the decision to organize will create a mutually beneficial relationship for employees and IKEA. For now though, it’s an example of hardworking Virginians showing courage and conviction.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of members of the NDP Steering Committee