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Machinists Union Quarrels With IKEA-Owned Factory

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Robert Siegel follows up on the April news that the International Trade Union Confederation representing 175 million workers in 151 countries and territories expressed alarm over labor practices by the furniture giant IKEA in Danville, Va. The labor organization claims that, unlike its plants in Sweden where workers enjoy high wages and five weeks annual leave, Danville workers get two weeks and much lower pay. Some of the Virginia plant's 335 workers are trying to form a union, and workers are not allowed to join the union of their choice. Robert visits the plant to see if those conditions — and other complaints — are still valid in the three years since the operation in Danville began.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

What happens when a company from a highly unionized northern European country comes to a right-to-work state in the American South? Whose culture wins out? That's the question posed by the only Swedwood plant in the U.S. Swedwood is a manufacturing subsidiary of IKEA, the big Swedish furniture company. Its American plant provides a few hundred manufacturing jobs, jobs that have been outsourced to us. When IKEA came to America back in 2008, it was big news worldwide.

(Soundbite of TV show, "BBC News")

Mr. GREG WOOD (Reporter, "BBC News"): In the southern Virginia town of Danville, there's been a foreign invasion.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Al Jazeera English")

Ms. CATH TURNER (Reporter, "Al Jazeera English"): Most of the jobs here are in manufacturing.

(Soundbite of TV show, "BBC News")

Mr. WOOD: The old tobacco warehouses of Danville are being converted to house 21st century...

(Soundbite of TV show, "Al Jazeera English")

Ms. TURNER: First, Danville must retrain and reprogram most of its workforce...

(Soundbite of TV show, "BBC News")

Mr. WOOD: Now, he works for IKEA.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Al Jazeera English")

Ms. TURNER: Cath Turner, Al-Jazeera, Danville, Virginia.

(Soundbite of TV show, "BBC News")

Mr. WOOD: Greg Wood, "BBC News" at Danville in Virginia.

SIEGEL: More than 300 manufacturing jobs were big news in Danville, a city of 50,000, whose glory days are long past.

Ms. JOYCE WILBURN (Society Corresponding, Danville Historical Society): Now, we'll see over here where the flag on the house there, behind that magnolia tree, that's the William Patton House. It was built in 1890. It's a 27-room Queen Anne mansion and...

SIEGEL: Joyce Wilburn gives walking tours for the Danville Historical Society. This is a strip of Main Street. It's known locally as Millionaires' Row. The stately houses used to be home to local captains of industries that left town for good.

Ms. WILBURN: This does represent the wealth that tobacco built and that the textiles built.

SIEGEL: The last big textile company to leave town, Dan River Mills, used to employ thousands. New factories that come to town bring jobs by the hundreds. Today, unemployment in the city is over 10 percent, and for Virginia, that's high. Enter IKEA.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SIEGEL: IKEA is synonymous with inexpensive desks, shelves and tables that come flat-packed and ready to assemble - Scandinavian efficiency and Scandinavian values.

On its website, IKEA says it promotes sustainable energy and responsibly-managed forests. It recycles cafeteria leftovers from its stores into biogas. It has donated thousands of tables to schools in Liberia and Burundi. And here was IKEA, in the form of its subsidiary Swedwood, coming to Danville with more than 300 new manufacturing jobs.

Mr. JERRY FRANKLIN (Danville Community College): It was tremendous. It was huge. Swedwood's first American plant who is here in Danville.

SIEGEL: That's Jerry Franklin of Danville Community College.

Mr. FRANKLIN: Once you hit that five-minute level, you want to go down on...

SIEGEL: Franklin runs the manufacturing jobs training program for the community college. When companies set up factories, Danville Community College trains local workers to their specs. Franklin says, for Swedwood, the community college trainers went out of their way.

Mr. FRANKLIN: When they first were coming, we actually sent two or three of our people over to Poland to work with them in their factory over there to learn their processes, and so that we would be better able to -when they got here, to actually design our training programs that would meet their needs.

SIEGEL: It sounded like a marriage made in manufacturing heaven. So it was a shock when IKEA's Danville factory found itself under attack.

Bill Street is the director of the Woodworkers Department of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Mr. BILL STREET (Director, Woodworkers Department for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers): We started getting phone calls from workers in Danville regarding unsafe working conditions, regarding excessively long hours, regarding disrespectful treatment.

SIEGEL: Bill Street is not saying that the plant in Danville is in especially bad operation by American standards. He says it falls short of IKEA's standards.

Mr. STREET: They signed a global framework agreement with an international global union, Builders and Woodworkers' International, known as BWI, that no matter where they went in the world, they would honor the international labor organization's core labor standards to ensure that every worker who touches a product sold in an IKEA store has access to freedom of association and the right to organize.

SIEGEL: Back in Sweden, union rights are guaranteed by law. Management and labor have regular meetings. So Bill Street and the machinists union figured IKEA, even in a right-to-work state, would not object to a union, and they set out to organize.

Mr. STREET: Our first thought was that this was going to be a rather simple and brief campaign because, after all, this was IKEA.

SIEGEL: That was three years ago.

Ken Brown is the Danville plant manager

Mr. KEN BROWN (Plant Manager, Swedwood): We believe in our - the right of our employees to choose or not to choose to have a union here. No one that I know of since I started here in 2007 has ever been terminated for their view on a union.

SIEGEL: A claim that the union disputes.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SIEGEL: The Danville factory is a brand-new, highly automated plant on a patch of what was recently Virginia farmland. It churns out bookshelves, small tables and home entertainment centers for sale in this country. IKEA set up shop here to be closer to its American stores and to save on transportation costs, and they plan to expand.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SIEGEL: For three years, Bill Street of the machinists union has been riling against the management of the plant. He says that, while there have been recent improvements, it still isn't living up to IKEA's standards.

Mr. STREET: Routinely, up until about three weeks ago, notice for overtime was frequently less than two hours, and overtime was mandatory. They had and still have a no-fault attendance policy. And so if your shift ends at 3 o'clock, and at 2:45 your manager comes up and says I need you to work over and you refuse, you get a point. When you get nine points, you are terminated.

SIEGEL: Ken Brown, the Danville plant manager, denies just about everything Bill Street says about the factory. Brown is a Danville native who went into furniture manufacturing after a stint in the Marine Corps. He has been at the plant from the start, but he was only made acting manager last fall and only got the job permanently this year.

Brown points out that Swedwood conducted an audit of its own practices, which it passed with nearly perfect grades, but he does admit that Swedwood Danville is being run differently today than it was a couple of years ago.

Mr. BROWN: We had startup issues, for sure. When we got this plant running, we had some startup issues.

SIEGEL: One startup issue that seems to have persisted up until this year: the extensive use of temporary workers. Here's the union's Bill Street.

Mr. STREET: About a third of the workforce was temporary workers and the overwhelming majority of those workers were Latino.

SIEGEL: One of the complaints from the machinists union is that you have an unusually high number of temporary workers working at the plant. How many workers here are temps now?

Mr. BROWN: Six workers.

SIEGEL: Six workers.

Mr. BROWN: Six.

SIEGEL: Is that significantly less than recently?

Mr. BROWN: Yeah. When I took over the plant, there was a large number of temporary workers. And one of my projects was, one, identify why we have them here, and the jobs that they were doing, were they permanent jobs, or were they truly temporary jobs? And...

SIEGEL: What did you find?

Mr. BROWN: We found a mix. We found that some of these jobs were permanent, and we immediately went on a hiring phase to hire. If the temporary workers were here and they qualified, we hired them immediately.

SIEGEL: But here's one consequence of the use of temps at Swedwood. Maria Blair(ph) is a 35-year-old divorcee, originally from Nicaragua, who went to a temp agency, called AmeriStaff, in search of work last fall. She was placed on the packing line at Swedwood.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SIEGEL: It is the least the automated part of the factory. Elsewhere, Swedwood workers enter commands into computers that drive the machinery. On the pack line, the workers, typically black or Hispanic women, put the finished product into boxes. Maria Blair says she was doing just that when she hurt her back on March 25th of this year.

Ms. MARIA BLAIR: I feel that my back started burning. I feel a big pain. It was like the sensation of being tired, but it was more than being tired. It was a very sharp pain in my back, and then, I felt it was part of my job. Because I work so much, I was tired, but I never realized I was creating a herniated disk.

SIEGEL: Maria Blair learned it was a herniated disk after going to a local emergency room. She says AmeriStaff, the temp agency, told her to hand in her Swedwood ID badge. And so she says she now has no job and $11,000 in medical bills.

Ken Brown of Swedwood admits that Maria Blair's medical problems are not covered by company benefits. She worked for AmeriStaff, not Swedwood.

Mr. BROWN: You would have to ask AmeriStaff, but I know at that time, we had an AmeriStaff supervisor on the floor working. So I don't know what transpired there. So I think that's a question that would have to come through AmeriStaff.

SIEGEL: And AmeriStaff would not return my calls about Maria Blair's case.

Bill Street of the machinists union says the Swedwood plant has a poor record for on-the-job accidents, at least according to records from 2008 through early 2010.

Mr. STREET: For each year, Swedwood had more serious, time-lost injuries by a factor of 100 percent than any other furniture factory in its industrial classification and size.

SIEGEL: But plant manager Ken Brown says, in effect, that may have been then, but this is now, when I asked about the union's claim that the plant has a poor safety record.

Mr. BROWN: I disagree, and today, I can't give you numbers to prove why I disagree with that, but I can tell you today, Swedwood Danville is leading the Swedwood group in lost-time accidents; and when I say leading the group in lost-time accidents, zero lost-time accidents. In the period, we went 271 days. No other plant in Swedwood group has done that.

SIEGEL: This contentious back-and-forth has gone on for three years. Bill Street says workers involved in organizing the union are intimidated by management. Some claim they have been fired for pro-union activities. Street says he has been barred from Swedwood's premises.

Ken Brown, the plant manager, claims no one has been fired for union activity. And as for letting a union organizer on the premises, he says they don't let any solicitors on the premises, and that is legal.

Brown says a random survey that the company paid for sampled workers anonymously and found that most are anti-union. But he says there should be a secret ballot, and if the workers vote for a union, so be it.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Welcome to IKEA. Here you can shop on your own, get what you want and take...

SIEGEL: This year, the conflict in Danville reached the welcoming, impeccably designed furniture showrooms where the factory's products are on display, like this one in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Unidentified Woman: If you have questions, ask anyone wearing an IKEA shirt.

SIEGEL: After a story about this conflict appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a pro-labor activist group started emailing IKEA, saying that until Swedwood's labor issues are resolved, they would refrain from shopping at IKEA.

Last week, the union claimed that 20,000 emails had been sent. And Bill Street of the machinists says he things the Swedish company has taken notice. He says last week, IKEA agreed, for the first time, to face-to-face talks with his union.

Spokesmen for IKEA and Swedwood won't confirm that. But Street regards it as the first sign there may be a resolution to an increasingly public conflict over IKEA's Swedwood plant in Danville, Virginia.

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