furniture factory in danville, virginia

Trade union criticizes Ikea's Swedwood

5:58 min

An American trade union is alleging that an IKEA subsidiary has purposely gotten in the way of efforts to organize workers and form a union.

Three years ago, Ikea opened its first furniture factory in America. The facility employs over 300 people in Danville, Virginia, and is run by an IKEA subsidiary called Swedwood. The Machinists union has been trying to organize the workers, however, the union complains that Swedwood has been doing its best to keep them away by not letting them into the factory as well as hiring a law firm known for shutting unions out.

The director of the Woodworkers department of the machininists union in the U.S., Bill Street, tells Radio Sweden that he has been allowed to distribute the union's literature to the workers so long as he had one foot off the property. Now he says, the union is in conversations with IKEA to be allowed to leaflet two days per week at a spot half a kilometer away from the factory where the cars will be driving about 60 kilometers per hour until they take a corner.

The Swedish union representing forestry, wood and graphical workers has been helping their American counterpart in the effort to organize the workers. Per Olof Sjöö, its president, expresses dismay at the way Swedwood and IKEA have behaved.

"People there are very afraid of losing their jobs if they're openly friendy towards the union," Sjöö observes after a recent trip to Danville. He adds that there is also fear among workers that the factory might close if the union is voted in. He says that Swedwood should reassure workers and thereby compensate for this fear.

"The thing that makes Danville special is the position between these two very different labor market systems," says Sjöö. "So far we haven't had any problems with Swedwood or IKEA. When establishing this company in the U.S., all of a sudden it became a completely different picture, and it's been really hard to get behind this American system. But I think Swedwood has to take that into consideration. If you are supporting unionizing around the world . . . you have to compensate for the system we find in America. And so far, I don't think that Swedwood actually have done that."

Sjöö says he regrets that Swedwood has not used the Swedish model of negotiating between the union and management but is rather going along with the American system where unions are "elected" in.

IKEA denies that they have been making it difficult for the union. "We're absolutely not in any form of union-busting activity," Steve Howard, the Chief Sustainability Officer for the IKEA Group, tells Radio Sweden.

"It's their choice to form or join a union or not – it's not our choice as an employer. And we totally respect that freedom of association," says Howard.

"We want our people to be able to actually conduct their jobs and we want people's break times to be respected, so we do have points where people can come in and have access under certain circumstances, and we've just agreed – there's an election period in Danville at the moment – and we've made an offer to the union to give them access to the site, so that our coworkers can make an informed choice," says Howard, adding that whatever decision the employees make will be respected.

The vote will be held on July 27.