Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ikea's Swedwood faces union vote in Danville tomorrow

From the Washington Post to the Daily Show, other major newspapers and international wire services, this vote to unionize has received an immense amount of attention. That's especially considering that it concerns just 325 workers in a small southside Virginia city.

Why is that. Ikea is a global company and that's a start. It's an unusual example of a foreign company being accused of abusive labor practices at a U.S. subsidiary, using the company to produce goods at a cost well below what they would do in their home country, as opposed to Nike in Indonesia or some such example. The Daily Show called Danville "Sweden's Mexico". It is also a rare instance of an attempt at unionizing in the generally union free South of this country.

From this perspective, the coverage has been easy to view as one-sided. If the abuses chronicled are institutionalized and not one-offs, there is a big problem and a union may be the answer. Only one person is ever quoted, it seems, in the articles and that is a Bill Street, who speaks for the workers who want to unionize and who one would think is from Danville if they didn't know more. He is professional union organizer from the big union, headquartered elsewhere. Ikea, however, is generally viewed as being a good employer and company elsewhere, so what went wrong and how pervasive is it?

I do know that while an average wage of $14 - $15 an hour for a manufacturing job, plus health benefits, sounds anemic in most places, in Danville that would be a coveted job in many families with few options in a city with a low cost of living and two decades of decreasing job opportunities. Ikea corporate of course defends its practices in general but is cooperating with the union election and apparently not interfering in any way.

Tomorrow's vote will tell us more than most of the news coverage. Regardless of the outcome, it is unclear whether this whole episode has any real benefit for Danville, a city that desperately needs to attract more companies and more entrepreneurs to the area if it is to enter a needed period of renewal.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is an example of Ikea's culture and Danville's culture clashing. Danville's legacy industries were textiles and tobacco. In the big textile mill supervisors were unequivocal bossmen. In the tobacco business the heirarchy of management to worker was dated from the 19th century. Ikea's "team leader" approach still needed to hire Danville managers to implement it. Despite training, there were apparently some practices that were not worker friendly, maybe a result of the mentality of the legacy industries still being imbedded in Danville.

Whether these were isolated instances or normal practice, who knows. The union is making hay and has found an eager media to promote and support them. Win or lose, the union is still the public relations winner and Danville is diminished.

11:51 AM  
Blogger John Borden said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:42 PM  
Blogger John Borden said...

The vote in. Union in by 221 to 69. With that margin it certainly shows two things - there were real issues if workers are willing to give up part of their salaries to union dues and it is unlikely that the company tried to intimidate workers in any way.

An observation would still be that there was an amazing amount of national and international attention to such a small number of workers in a small assembly facility.

It's unclear whether all of this has been good for Danville so let's hope that it will be good for the workers. Will Swedwood now actually expand in the town, or will even the smallest possibility of future strikes cause them to revise those plans.

To be continued...

6:27 AM  

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