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Union files for election at Ikea's first U.S. factory

The International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers is seeking to represent workers at the plant in Danville, Va., who have complained about low wages, long working hours and even discrimination.

June 23, 2011|By Nathaniel Popper, Los Angeles Times
  • Employees Herman Richardson, left, and Paul Gentry prepare pieces of furniture for packing at the Swedwood factory in Danville, Va., in May 2008. Swedwood is Ikeas manufacturing subsidiary.
Employees Herman Richardson, left, and Paul Gentry prepare pieces of furniture… (Steve Sheppard, Associated…)

A labor union looking to organize Ikea's first American factory has asked the government to allow workers to vote on whether they want representation.

The International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers filed its request with the National Labor Relations Board on Monday along with signature cards from what it believes is a majority of the eligible employees at the Danville, Va., factory. The plant, which produces bookcases and coffee tables, is run by Ikea's manufacturing subsidiary, Swedwood.

Workers at the plant have complained about low wages, discrimination and long working hours. The union and Ikea had begun working toward a cooperative election process. But in the last month discussions between the two sides have fallen apart and the union filed for its election without notifying the company.

"We just decided this has gone on too long," said Bill Street, the union's representative in Danville.

Swedwood said it welcomed a secret-ballot election for its workers at the Danville plant, which employs 340 people.

"We will respect and follow the outcome of such voting," Swedwood's spokeswoman, Ingrid Steen, told The Times.

Elections typically occur about six to eight weeks after a union files its petition.

The move toward an election in Virginia comes as the NLRB is proposing changes that would shorten the time between a formal call for a vote on unionization and the election. The new rules, viewed as favorable to labor organizers, are not likely to take effect before an election in Danville.

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 in Danville stems from wages and benefits that are significantly lower than those given to Swedwood employees doing similar work in Swedish factories.

Employees in Danville have also complained about being forced to work overtime and watching co-workers being replaced by temporary workers who receive lower wages and no benefits.

Six former black employees filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming that they had faced racial discrimination at the factory.

In May, American Rights at Work, an advocacy group for unions, started a letter-writing campaign that it said had delivered 22,129 emails to Ikea's Swedish chief executive, Mikael Ohlsson, asking him to give the workers in Virginia the same rights as those in Sweden.

Swedwood responded to the publicity by ending its heavy use of temporary workers. Ikea also paid for an outside auditing firm to speak with factory employees and review working conditions.

The audit found that factory management had required employees to work overtime, a practice that the company pledged to stop. The audit also said that no instances of discrimination were found and that "the internal state of the factory is on a high level from a health and safety perspective."

Street, the union representative, said workers told him that they were afraid to speak openly with the auditors for fear of losing their jobs. He said mandatory overtime ceased immediately after the audit but then resumed in recent weeks. He also said there had been three injuries in the last two weeks in which workers had to go for medical treatment.

Steen, the Swedwood spokeswoman, acknowledged the injuries and the return of mandatory overtime but said they were not recurring issues.

"Swedwood Danville is, and remains, a safe and good place to work," she said.

Tensions between the union and Swedwood have been building for some time.

The union began speaking with workers in the year after the factory opened in 2008. Street said when he was handing pamphlets to workers on the road outside the plant, company managers came out and asked him to leave. Shortly thereafter, Swedwood declared the road to be private property and posted no-trespassing signs.

The company has hired a law firm, Jackson Lewis, that is known for helping companies develop strategies to keep unions out of their facilities. Current and former employees told The Times that Swedwood held meetings during work hours in which managers criticized the union and told workers that it would be in their best interest not to join.

After The Times reported on tensions at the factory in an April 10 article, Street met with Ikea executives in the Netherlands and they discussed a way to drop the antagonistic tactics used by both sides.

Both say the other side did not live up to the initial terms of the agreement.

nathaniel.popper@latimes.com

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