Workers at Ikea's first factory in the United States have voted to be represented by a union, the latest development in a bitter campaign that has challenged the low-cost home furnishing company's reputation as a worker-friendly employer.
Employees at the plant in Danville, Va., voted 221-69 on Wednesday to allow the International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers to negotiate salary and benefits with the retailer's manufacturing subsidiary, Swedwood, a spokeswoman for the union said. The National Labor Relations Board confirmed the results.
The next step will be for the union to represent workers in collective bargaining, something that could be a protracted process. An Ikea spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
In the weeks leading to the vote, the factory hired the law firm Jackson Lewis, which has made its reputation keeping unions out of companies. Workers said Swedwood officials required employees to attend meetings at which management discouraged union membership.
The conflict in Danville has attracted widespread attention because of Ikea's public image as a good corporate citizen that has worked well with employees and unions in its European factories. Some of the anger at the Danville factory, which opened in 2008, stems from wages and benefits that are significantly lower than those given to Swedwood employees doing similar work in Swedish factories.
Laborers in Swedwood plants in Sweden produce bookcases and tables similar to those manufactured in Danville. The big difference is that the Europeans enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government-mandated five weeks of paid vacation. Full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days — eight of them on dates determined by the company.
Workers have also complained of eliminated raises, a frenzied production pace and mandatory overtime. Several said it's common to find out on a Friday evening that they'll have to pull a weekend shift, with disciplinary action for workers who don't show up.
Six former black employees filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming that they had faced racial discrimination at the factory.